CHAPTER TWO, Phoenix Ascending Theatre. One of Neil Simon’s more tragic comedies, this autobiographical play follows writer George Schneider (James Treacy) through his mourning over the untimely death of his first wife to the whirlwind wooing of his second, Jennie Malone (Tracy Repep). Alternately encouraging and cautioning the impetuous pair are Leo (Jeffrey Hoge), George’s wisecracking older brother, and Faye (Traci Stanton), Jenny’s flamboyant best friend. The dysfunctional foursome offers us a glimpse of the eternal cycle of breaking and healing hearts.

Despite the dark context, Simon’s script is peppered with his usual zippy dialogue, which challenges the director and players to look through the layers of shtick and repartee to the drama beneath. Director Stephen R. Roath comes up short, as do Treacy and Repep, who haven’t internalized their characters’ suffering. Instead of complex, three-dimensional people, they seem like schizophrenics, two nice young kids in love who suddenly rage, cry, and scream about their fears in certain pivotal scenes. Any sense of the traumas that haunt them barely penetrates the surface, defusing the script’s intensity and making its shifts from ecstasy to depression to vulnerability seem simply manic. As the two sidekicks, Hoge and Stanton might take note of Simon’s own advice: If an actor knows he’s being funny, he’s not. They have some genuine moments of humor and affection, usually during the serious scenes; bringing that humanity to their one-two punch lines would do much to bolster this flat-line production.

–Kim Wilson