CHAPTER TWO -- At the Warner through February 18.
If you are thinking of going to the Neil Simon movie "California Suite," you might reconsider and go instead to the Neil Simon play, "Chapter Two," at the Warner Theater.
Simon puts out a reliable product of quipfilled dialogue about low-key problems of living, so if you're in the mood for one, the other will also do. But there are packaging differences. Simon's emphasis on dialogue and his skill at tight construction show off better on the stage. And although the movie cast is better, not counting a strange overlap, which is that the same actor plays the same type of part in both play and film, the play comes out ahead on plot, set and amusement value.
The 1977 play is about a widower and a divorcee who make a quick second marriage and are then faced with having to channel the romantic momentum into something lasting. There is a well-constructed counterpoint with his brother and her friend, each of whom is trying less successfully to make romance obscure marital difficulties. Herbert Edelman plays the raunchy older brother, exactly as he does to Walter Matthau in "california Suite"; Jane A. Johnston, as the friend, is another good Simon regular.
Jerry Orbach might seem lackluster as the widower, even considering that he's supposed to be depressed a lot of the time, if not for the comparison with Ryan O'Neal in "Oliver's Story," who sets a standard for droopy widowers so low that Robach couldn't possibly match it. Marilyn Redfield is hampered, in the role of answer-to-a-man's-every-problem, by a lot of flouncing blond hair that suggests other sterotypes. Still, they handle adequately the bittersweetness of second-choice romance.
But the chief reason to pick the play is the joy of going to a new and attractive downtown Washington legitimate theater -- even if it is calling itself "historical" because it had been a vaudeville and movie palace since 1924.
The Warner, which seats 2,000 and has a dark red plush interior and a spacious-and-gracious lobby with a polished wood bar selling drinks at intermission, is now to be basically a roadhouse for Broadway shows, with its musical bookings and community events to be intermittent. The bugs and tatters are not all out yet -- nor are they at the Kennedy Center, for that matter -- but the theater is functioning well.
After all the scares about the survival of the National, not only is it now safe, but with the Warner and Ford's it constitutes a small but solid downtown Theater District.