With all the wig in the world

Neil Simon's Chapter Two is not a patch on Woody Allen's Annie Hall.

Two questions reverberate in the mind after seeing Chapter Two: why did Tom Conti decide to inaugurate his year as in-house producer at the Gielgud with this amiable but creaky comedy? And where on earth did he get that wig?

Perhaps the answer to the first question isn't hard to see: like every Neil Simon play, Chapter Two has plenty of snappy one-liners, and playing the recently widowed George has obvious attractions. He's by far the wittiest, most emotionally complex character, who gets to woo and win the attractive and almost unbelievably sympathetic Jennie (Sharon Gless); and he provides Conti, who in recent years has shown an alarming tendency to fall back on floppy-haired, self-mocking charm, with the chance to play curly-haired (God, where did he get that wig?) and deadpan.

To see what's wrong with the play, though, set it alongside Annie Hall. Simon's play and Woody Allen's film both date from 1977; both deal with the relationship between a pair of smart, funny Manhattanites - he a neurotic Jewish writer who gets lots of great lines, she a sweet, amusing but less self-aware gentile. Both stories are blatantly autobiographical - Annie Hall is all about Allen's relationship with Diane Keaton, Chapter Two is about Simon's whirlwind affair with Marsha Mason after the death of his first wife - and in both cases, you might argue, the writer steps beyond the bounds of autobiography into narcissism.

The principal difference between them is that Allen's is a shared narcissism: in Annie Hall he wasn't simply pointing at himself and saying "Look, aren't I cute?"; he was including Keaton in the gesture - "Look, aren't we cute?" You are permitted to see that she was every bit as insecure and emotionally interesting as him and many of the laughs are directed at the Allen character's rather unpleasant self-absorption. George, the Simon character in Chapter Two, is also pretty unpleasant, at least in the play's latter stages, but we're never given room to doubt that he's basically very, very nice - he's just handling his grief.

Jennie, on the other hand, is a plank, flat, supportive and thoroughly wooden - Sharon Gless surely deserves better material to work with than this. It's tempting to see this imbalance as evidence of chauvinism, but sexual politics is probably a red herring: the issue here is downright solipsism. The result is that while it's easy to enjoy the sunny, occasionally hilarious first half, in which the couple meet and fall in love, in the second half your sympathies are slowly disengaged. George's grief for his first wife, his estrangement from Jennie and their final reconciliation may be taken from life, but they feel fictitious.

There are other problems with David Gilmore's production - Ian Redford, who looks like a big Irish prop forward, isn't convincingly cast as the wiry, dark Conti's philandering brother. And Conti himself plays the comedy a little too downbeat, so that it's hard to see what it is that attracts Sharon Gless. Debora Weston is fine playing Jennie's sharp-tongued best friend. But the funniest performance comes from that wig - a tightly curled, iron-grey contraption that looks about as at home on Conti's head as a rabbi in the Vatican. Now that's comedy.

n Gielgud Theatre, London, WC1. Booking: 0171-494 5065

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