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With 'Chapter Two,' Simon perfectly blends pain with hilarity

In Neil Simon's "Chapter Two" at the Duluth Playhouse, George Schneider (Zachary Stofer) is a recently widowed author who believes that true love is "not supposed to happen twice in your life."...

In Neil Simon's "Chapter Two" at the Duluth Playhouse, George Schneider (Zachary Stofer) is a recently widowed author who believes that true love is "not supposed to happen twice in your life."

However, his brother Leo (Abe Curran) thinks he has just the girl for George and, thanks to bad penmanship as much as kismet, George meets Jennie Malone (Jen Bergum). Recently divorced, she isn't looking either, despite being pushed by her best friend Faye Medwick (Cathy Berggren).

Usually in a romantic stage comedy, the inevitable wedding comes after the curtain, but in "Chapter Two" it takes place during the less comic second act. The problem is that a wedding does not a marriage make, especially since George suffers from the absolute conviction that happiness in the wake of grief is an unforgivable sin.

As George, Stofer has to convey grief over the loss of his wife without losing his comic sense, which he does superbly for most of the play. However, he underplays the swelling emotion felt the second time he falls in love with Jennie.

Bergum's Jennie is from Cleveland, so she lacks both the New York accents and cadences of the other three characters. She is also the only one on stage who actually enjoys the jokes as they fly by. This sharp contrast in the first act softens in the second with her best scenes, a drunken tirade and a truly heartfelt declaration.

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George and Jennie do not make contact until Scene 5. Prior to that point, they are handicapped by playing second fiddle to the show's pair of scene-stealing second bananas, Curran's Leo and Berggren's Faye. But once they finally meet, "Chapter Two" finds its heart.

For her Playhouse debut, director Michelle Juntunen has her cast working as hard on the physical comedy as they do on getting the timing of Simon's jokes down. Scenic designer Mark C. Koski provides not just a set, but two complete apartments for George and Jennie.

The comedy, which runs three hours, represents a clear line of demarcation in Simon's long career. Before it we had "Barefoot in the Park" and "The Odd Couple," while afterward we have "Brighton Beach Memories" and "Biloxi Blues."

You have to marvel at how Simon can top a moment of painful emotion with a joke, as well as how many times he makes a pass at a joke. No wonder his comedies are a Playhouse staple.

LAWRANCE BERNABO teaches at Lake Superior College and has attempted to synthesize the erudition of Felix Unger with the slovenliness of Oscar Madison.

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