Famous for the broad, mainstream comedies that made him the 20th century's most commercially successful playwright, Neil Simon suffered the shocking loss of his first wife to cancer, leaving him devastated. A new relationship with emerging stage and screen star Marsha Mason pulled him out of depression and into a new chapter of his career in which his bright comedies were infiltrated by darker, sometimes angrier tones that led to his later, more substantial works. This highly autobiographical play mirrors that unhappy passage of his life, beginning with a first act closely resembling his earlier comedies in witty repartee and one-liners, but breaks into emotional pain through Act 2. While a bit clumsier than most of his work, its juxtaposition of light and heavy offer a good indication of his future, deeper dramas. Despite a bit of overwriting, director Andrew Barnicle finds his way through to the heart of the matter with an outstanding cast, headed by Caroline Kinsolving as a young divorcee and Geoffrey Lower as the novelist who stands in for Simon. Each scene between these two captures the essence of loneliness giving way to openness. As her best friend and his younger brother, Leslie Stevens and Kevin Ashworth skillfully provide the broad characters Simon's audiences had expected up to this point. Bruce Goodrich's set presenting two contrasting Manhattan apartments on one stage provide perfect visual cues about characters' economic class as well as elegant space for Barnicle to stage with his signature precision. Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach; Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Feb. 17. (949) 497- 2787, lagunaplayhouse.com.
Sat., Jan. 12, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m.; Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., Jan. 20, 7 p.m.; Thu., Jan. 24, 2 p.m. Starts: Jan. 12. Continues through Feb. 3, 2013