In the context of Neil Simon's "Chapter Two," directed by Patrick Vest for Little Fish in its nicely remodeled Theatre, getting back in the saddle sounds like a crude way to describe the goal of newly widowed George Schneider (Richard Perloff), who's just lost what, by all accounts, was one hell of a wife. But the keen ensemble performances and Vest's sensitive direction by Vest make it just that, with the exception that, instead of a horse, George gets back in the saddle of a unicorn.
It's a story about moving on from grief. Set in New York's Upper East side and lower Central Park West in February of 1970 (Good Lord, an analog clock radio!), the production shows how, in matters romantic, at least, the past continues to inform the present and, in this case, extends forward into the future.
It's funny and sad. Funny in the way that sudden and cataclysmic love (George with Jennie Malone - Trisha Miller) turns a reasonable albeit temporarily poleaxed widower into a jumping-up-and-down fool. It's sad in the ways that the remnants of a prior love threaten to subvert this sudden and cataclysmic love. It feels real, that is, it's not as black and white simple as: Wife dies, he meets another woman via his brother Leo (Tony Cicchetti), they fall in love or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof and, two weeks later, they get married. Oh, no - it's much more textured, nuanced, and painful than that. And that's why it rings so true.
The cast acquits itself well as four characters try to navigate unstable and/or disintegrating, relationships. Married or not, their emotional lives are in flux. They can be transitional (George - widower; Jennie - divorcee) or they can be, as with Leo and with Faye Medwick (Dana Pollak), Jennie's best friend, in Facebook terms, complicated.
Initially and strategically, Perloff plays his George at half speed. Devastated at the loss of his wife, he's listless and despondent. He's just come back from what presumably was a cathartic trip to Paris but which instead, because he revisits their old haunts, only fuels his loss. When he picks up steam - when he hits his stride with Jennie - the transformation is nothing short of miraculous.
Though she too is heartbroken at a no-more relationship, Miller's Jennie is kind and giving, should the opportunity present itself. She beams with credible and intrinsic goodness that shines through in her inflection and her eyes, goodness that makes you want her to find someone who will appreciate her. Someone like George. Their initial encounter (giddy) and the final scene (weathered but committed) are moving; they're soul mate material.
Cicchetti's Leo and Medwick's Faye nicely balance Perloff's George and Miller's Jennie. Both are inadvertently funny. Because Leo's a smooth-talking (and well-meaning) press agent, he can (and does) can rationalize anything. Faye's a soap opera actress whose own life is bubbly, to say the least Though they both face and deal with relationship problems in a kneejerk (and hilarious) manner, their issues are not as life-and-death as those that George and Jennie face. To Vest's credit, he keeps the distinction clear.
This sweet production affirms that love, at least its first flowering, is not, as poets declaim, a hermetically sealed, self sustaining climate. No, it's emotionally permeable with, for better or worse, what went before. As we see with George, you don't simply flip a switch and wipe the emotional slate clean. Accommodations must be made, messy accommodations. All of which make for good drama and happy endings.