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Simon Says, 'Laugh'

Humor and warmth fill Camarillo production of writer's 'Chapter Two.'

February 01, 2001|TODD EVERETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Chapter Two" captures Neil Simon at an interesting point in his career, just on the cusp of turning to his series of darker, angst-ridden autobiographical plays. As now being performed at the Camarillo Community Theatre under the direction of longtime Simon advocate Don Pearlman, it stands as one of Simon's early, funny ones.

Successful author George Schneider (portrayed by Wes Deitrick) is having trouble emotionally recovering from the death of his wife of many years when he's introduced to a young actress, Jennie Malone (Trish Haight), who is recovering from a recent divorce. Neither is looking forward to a date, blind or otherwise, but George's brother, Leo (Ron Ford), and Jennie's friend, Faye Medwick (Melanie McGuire), think it's a swell idea. Will the relationship take? Here's a hint: Did widower Neil Simon marry actress Marsha Mason?

The script tends toward warmth, if not mawkishness, and is funny without being jokey.

Performances are strong throughout. Deitrick, whose last two local performances were leads in Pearlman-directed Simon plays ("California Suite" and "Rumors"), is by now a middle-aged hand at this sort of thing. Haight and the comic actors Ford and McGuire also are veterans of Pearlman/Simon productions around the county. The director may have formed a gypsy stock company; if so, he and local audiences are in for some interesting theater in the future.

DETAILS

"Chapter Two" continues at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday through Feb. 18 at the Camarillo Airport Theatre, 330 Skyway Drive, on the grounds of the Camarillo Airport. Tickets to all performances are $12 adults; $10 seniors, students and active military; $8 ages 11 and under. For reservations or more information, call 388-5716.

*

The Conejo Players are making a noticeable and commendable effort to introduce new plays into the local repertoire. Their current evening production, "Last Night of Ballyhoo," reviewed last week, is making its Ventura County debut, as is the company's Cabrillo Afternoon Theatre production of "Mrs. California," playing weekend matinees and Sunday night.

Like "Ballyhoo," which starts out looking like one kind of play (a generic Southern comedy) and winds up something else, "Mrs. California" is, at first appearance, one of those backstage-at-the-beauty-pageant comedies that are flooding movie theaters these days. And, indeed, Doris Baizley's play does take place backstage (and onstage) at a 1955 pageant. But the author has other things on her mind.

Dot--Mrs. Los Angeles in the statewide competition--is the center of the play, competing against Mrs. San Francisco (Melanie Lindgren), Mrs. San Bernardino (Laura Lynn Sawyer) and Mrs. Modesto (Deborah Huber). The contestants are asked to demonstrate such homemaking skills as table-setting, sewing an apron and preparing a meal. "This is not a beauty contest," they're told, "though there is an evening gown competition."

The final hurdle is to deliver an original speech on "my proudest moment," and this is where playwright Baizley and Dot herself make their point. "Mrs. California" isn't a feminist tract--it's too light-handed--but Baizley shows an undercurrent of the women's movement that, in those days, was still on the horizon. Finding and keeping the right tone must have been challenging for director Linda Stiegler, who deserves commendation for her effort.

The play marks the debut of Ventura County's newest theatrical couple, Judy Diderrich as Dot, and her husband, Jim Diderrich, as Dot's sponsor. She--the former Judy Weaver--is well-known to local audiences and delivers a typically heartfelt performance. Her husband, in what might be his most prominent role in several years of local theater, demonstrates real comic skill as the befuddled Dudley.

Mette Beyer Rubin is very amusing as Dot's friend and advisor, Babs, a free-spirited divorcee, a role that has become a sitcom staple.

The other three actresses aren't given much to do, but they do it well, with Huber's character a standout. The show's actual stage manager, Ken Endress, appears as the pageant's harried stage manager.

DETAILS

"Mrs. California" continues through Feb. 10 at the Conejo Players Theater, 351 S. Moorpark Road in Thousand Oaks. Performances are at 2 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday, and 2 p.m. Feb. 10. Tickets to all shows are $7. For further information, call 495-3715.

Todd Everett can be reached at teverett@concentric.net.

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