North Country Stage presents its shows at Unity Hall, a 119 year-old slice of history in Barneveld, NY. The entrance is immediately adjacent to the road (two steps out the door and watch out for passing cars); you might find yourself imagining bygone days when stagecoaches brought guests from Trenton Falls resorts to see vaudeville acts in the second floor theater. Unity Hall’s seats are incredibly hard – cushions are offered, but you might consider bringing your own stadium mat. The small auditorium is beautiful – all dark wood, vaulted ceiling, and a charming old stage. You can’t beat the space for historic ambience.
Neil Simon wrote Chapter Two in 1977 as tribute to his second wife, Marsha Mason, who helped ease him out of his grief over the passing of his first wife. It ran for 857 performances on Broadway and was adapted as a film in 1979, starring James Caan and Marsha Mason. 38 years later, the material is somewhat dated, particularly with regards to sexual politics. That doesn’t have to be a deal-breaker for modern theater groups, but it should be considered by the creative team – set designers, costumers, hair and makeup, etc. The heart of Chapter Two remains sturdy, a love story in the wake of personal tragedy.
Entering the theater, Dave Fuerst’s set makes a great impression. It’s split stage right and left, representing two remarkably detailed apartments in a tiny space. I wished for some preset lighting to better appreciate the details (a preset should always be used when the curtain is open prior to show.) Unfortunately, once the play began, the set’s limitations became clear. Two couches were arranged perpendicular to the audience, so when actors sat on them (which they did a lot), their lines were spoken in profile. The only space in either apartment where the actors reliably faced out was upstage. We spent a LOT of time looking at the sides of heads, and often the backs of heads. (One monologue was delivered entirely from offstage, a frustrating choice.) Hair was frequently an issue as well, hanging down and blocking faces.
Gordie Felt and Aaron Ure delivered their lines in a natural style – so natural it often seemed they didn’t want to disturb the audience by speaking too loudly. Despite Unity Hall’s vaunted acoustics, it was difficult to hear them. Another problem with such a naturalistic approach is that the jokes get lost – there was no effort to highlight buildups or punchlines. Both characters are depressed in their lives, and the actors played that to a fault. As the grieving widower, Felt’s distress was palpable; unfortunately, he didn’t add new notes as the show progressed – I never bought that he was falling for the actress Jennie, or that she was the best thing that could have happened to him, despite the insistence of the playwright. Felt rarely looked out toward the audience, preferring mostly to look down. For us to care about the character, we needed to see more of his face, and we needed enough variation to know that growth was possible. As played, I wanted the character to soak his head.
Carrie Bostick and Emily Foote were better at playing to the audience, but they had the misfortune of appearing in a romantic comedy. The women had more chemistry with each other than their male counterparts, a concept that doesn’t seem to have been on Simon’s radar in 1977. Also, the women were supposed to be actresses on a soap opera in the 1970’s, which I wouldn’t have suspected except they kept telling us. One might think that Neil Simon had a pretty specific idea of how such characters might dress, speak, and act – in this production, they seemed more like accountants. (Or, in 1970’s NYC, secretaries.)
As the main couple, Felt and Bostick were a particularly disastrous pairing – I rooted against them, as every chaste kiss and unconvincing declaration of love made things worse. Their best moment was a series of phone calls near the beginning, as they met and negotiated their first date remotely. It must have seemed novel in 1977, and Simon reprises the gimmick to close the play. (The phones rang – with bells – instead of relying on sound cues, a nice touch.) In the current production, it was (probably) unintended anachronism that the best connection between the characters happened via technology, instead of face-to-face.
The stage lighting didn’t add much, as the lights were either on or off, and no effort was made to split the stage, or connote time of day. Practical lights turned on and off seemingly randomly, unconnected to the general lighting – one of the few reliable sources of amusement. Boredom forced me to realize that the apartment doors opened out, rather than in – a design unlikely to be found in any New York City apartment (no chains on the doors, either – surely unusual in mid-70’s New York.)
Directors considering any play must decide what to emphasize. What are we trying to convey to the audience? If I’d been wrestling with Chapter Two, I’d want to tell a good love story, and nail as many of the jokes as possible. North Country Director Brian Ure apparently had different priorities. Damned if I know what they were.