It seems like it was only a few short years ago that The Jewish Ensemble Theatre Company debuted. But no: The West Bloomfield-based professional theater opened its 20th season Sept. 6, and for that alone founding artistic director Evelyn Orbach is to be congratulated.
For many years, Orbach steadfastly refused to produce anything written by America’s foremost Jewish playwright, Neil Simon. Theatergoers and thespians alike thought that was odd. After all, JET’s mission is to address issues from a Jewish perspective. But she had her reasons, and eventually she changed her mind. “(A) play must have something more than punch-lines,” she explains in the current program’s Director’s Notes.
That’s certainly the case with Simon’s romantic comedy “Chapter Two,” which seemed to resonate quite well with not one, but two audiences on Saturday night.
Simon’s semiautobiographical story explores the fast-moving relationship that develops between a newly widowed author and a recently divorced actress – neither of whom is searching for a new partner. George Schneider has yet to fully process and accept the death of his perfect wife Barbara, which interferes with his whirlwind love affair with the also-perfect (but different) Jennie Malone. Yet the lovebirds marry after a two-week courtship. A frosty honeymoon doesn’t bode well for the newlyweds, and when George’s anxieties explode upon their return home, their short marriage seems doomed. But Jennie is not about to give up on the man she loves, and she’s prepared to fight to keep him.
But WHY, I kept asking myself during the play’s second act.
Part of the problem is Simon’s script. Simon offers only a few glimpses of Jennie and George in the same room together, which denies the audience ample time to observe their blossoming love. Instead, much of what we gleam comes second hand from George talking with his brother Leo, and Jennie with her best friend Faye.
But more importantly, once their introductory phone calls and initial meeting are over (both of which are excellently staged and executed), little physical chemistry exists between Mark Rademacher and Trisha Miller Smith to make the audience believe that George and Jennie are really, truly and deeply in love. In particular, Rademacher’s body language with Jennie in the happier first act is stiff and usually fails to convey any intimacy or closeness – and he often fails to make eye contact with Smith. That’s especially noticeable (and irritating) in the more volatile second act where much of his anger is focused everywhere else but at Jennie. (It comes off as a spoiled child’s tantrum rather than as an adult expressing his pain.)
Smith’s interpretation is quite good, however. But with no obvious reason to love George – especially after his mean and hurtful outbursts in the second act – one can’t help but wonder about Jennie’s emotional stability. Again: Why?
Far more fun, interesting and believable is the affair that rapidly develops between Leo and Faye. Aaron T. Moore and Linda Ramsay are superb, both as a team and separately with George and Jennie. (The two men work quite well together, as do the two women.)
The set by Frederick Engelgau – two separate New York apartments, one far ritzier than the other – is excellent and impressive. Sound and lighting design by Jim Davis are also quite good.
The Jewish Ensemble Theatre at the Aaron DeRoy Theatre at the Jewish Community Center, 6600 W. Maple Rd., West Bloomfield. Wed., Thur., Sat. & Sun. through Sep. 28. Tickets: $29-$39. For information: 248-788-2900 or http://www.jettheatre.org.