Playwright: Neil Simon. At: Windy City Playhouse, 3014 W. Irving Park Rd. Tickets: 773-891-8985; www.windycityplayhouse.com; $25-$45. Runs through: Dec. 20
When Neil Simon's 16th hit Broadway play premiered in 1977, the press was all about its premise mirroring events of the author's own life, seconded only by speculation on why a writer whose success rested on rat-a-tat farces was getting increasinglywell, serious. Time having taken the gloss off the gossip, however, what we have in 2015 is a contemplation on confused mid-life lovers who just happen to communicate in hyper-articulate vaudeville patter.
George Schneider is a pop novelist whose picture-of-perfection wife has recently died after an untimely illness. Jennie Malone is a television actress formerly wedded to a pro athlete, but now divorced. Besties Leo and Faye, anxious to restore the Noah's Ark imperative, attempt to match up this man whose trade renders him unable to express himself anywhere but on paper, and this woman whose expertise lies in her instantaneous verbalization. What can you expect, though, from counselors whose own marriages are rapidly deterioratingLeo's, because he can't help chasing every skirt in sight, and Faye's, because her spouse won't chase the skirt in his own home.
It's easy today to jeer the Simon-Says canon as retro feel-good fluff for tired suburbanites, but unless advice columnists are fabricating their own correspondence, our society suffers no shortage of widowers and divorcees hesitant to embark on new liaisons before fully concluding those of the past, nor have husbands enslaved to their libidos or wives in need of amatory assurance passed into extinction. The solution hasn't changed, either: talk to each other, admit what's really eating youafter thinking over what exactly it isand your troubles may not be altogether resolved, but you'll be a step closer to the reconciliation at the heart of every comedy by the playwright whose desperate search for happy endings fueled a career spanning nearly half a century.
Making a play fresh and timely despite its main facilitating instrument being rotary-dial telephones tethered by 14-foot extension cords requires a director to dispense with old-school definitions of how Simon should be presented. Jessica Thebus and her seasoned ensemble wisely look to their text for guidance, creating whole, flawed, but immensely likable, characters not unlike those we still encounter today ( or maybe once were, ourselves ) whose self-aware banterwhile swapping snappy first-meeting dialogue with George, Jennie asks, "Is this repartee?"doesn't stop them from tracking every stop along the always-rocky road of romance.