'Chapter Two'

Blair Baker as divorced Jennie and David Mason as widower George get together in “Chapter Two.”

Witticisms whip by every few seconds in Neil Simon’s plays.

But “Chapter Two,” which Arizona Theatre Company opened Friday, has a darker side to it, as well.

Deep, shuddering grief rubs shoulders with the fear of falling in love and miserable marriages in this Simon piece.

And this ATC production, directed by Marsha Mason, doesn’t shy away from the life dramas.

The play centers on recently widowed George (David Mason) and recently divorced Jennie (Blair Baker). Leo (Ben Huber), George’s brother, has been harping on him to get out and date. He keeps trying to arrange blind dates, much to George’s chagrin. And Jennie’s BFF Faye (Diana Pappas) is harping on her to go out. She’s not interested, either.

But through a mistaken phone call, Jennie and George connect. Their clever repartee convinces them they should meet, if only for a few minutes. A 2½-week manic romance follows before the two decide it is time to marry.

The set, designed by Lauren Halpern, is split between Jennie and George’s apartments — he is a writer and clearly has more money, with a pretty spectacular chandelier, lots of art, rich furnishings and loads of books. Jennie, an actress, lives more modestly — the apartment is smaller, no art, simple furniture. But she, too, has books. Halpern’s set helps define each character.

The play is partially based on the relationship of the divorced Marsha Mason and widowed Simon, who married just a few weeks after they met. She also played Jennie in the 1979 movie.

Perhaps her intimate knowledge of the characters is why the play felt so infused with honesty, and why the more serious side of the play was uncovered.

It was most clear in David Mason’s George. When his anxiety attacks hit, when his grief overcomes him, when he is socially clumsy, it rang painfully true.

David Mason’s subtle performance underscored the struggles the character has.

Baker has keen timing and her Jennie was bubbly and funny.

Faye and Leo are less interesting. And, frankly, both are kind of annoying. Pappas and Huber embraced the obnoxious aspects of their characters while playing up the humor.

Simon’s plays can sometimes be tiresome; this is not one of them. It’s so well-crafted, the two main characters so fully drawn and the quips so witty and smart, that it doesn’t have time for tiresome.

Contact reporter Kathleen Allen at kallen@tucson.com or 573-4128. On Twitter: @kallenStar