Jake's Women, now being staged by the Nomad Theatre company, is a strange pastiche of a play. It's clearly autobiographical, combining those snappy, comic Neil Simon one-liners with some thoughts on the relationship between fiction and life, as well as a serious attempt at self-analysis. The central concept is a reasonably fruitful one for comedy. As Jake, a novelist, works in his study, he summons up the women in his life and interacts with them. But these fantasy figures have a way of wriggling out of his grasp, asserting their own ideas and personalities, mocking the words and actions he gives them.
Jake's musings are periodically interrupted by his real, flesh-and-blood wife, Maggie -- though when she leaves him for a six-month trial separation, she, too, reappears as a figment of his imagination. Jake's other women are his flamboyant sister, Karen; Edith, his psychiatrist; his daughter, Molly, at ages twelve and 21; Julie, his first wife, who died a decade or so into their marriage; and Sheila -- another non-figment -- with whom he has a disastrous date that's haunted by a peevish Maggie (the scene is a sendup of Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit).
This plot creates some logical problems: Is it the real Maggie who busts up the date, casting her spirit abroad to jinx a rival? Or has Jake conjured up Maggie's image because, at some level, he realizes he's not ready to date again? Another example: At one point, Jake fools imaginary shrink Edith by pretending to call the real Edith on the phone -- which means he's tricking someone who exists only in his mind, where he also holds twin images of Edith, one twin a credible authority figure, the other a mischievous prankster. So things get a little knotty in metaphysical terms, and you can see why the characters in Jake's Women sometimes seem blurry. But much of the time, Simon's concept works; often it's funny. And Jake's conversations with his long-dead Julie provide some downright touching moments.
What ultimately kills Jake's Women are the playwright's endless psychological theories and self-analyses. He puts in all these lines about Jake being distant and not trusting himself, and Maggie climbing the corporate ladder and finding herself running and running without ever understanding just what she's running for. Even ghostly Julie complains that she wants to be herself. We don't see these tendencies expressed in action; they just get chewed over and over as the characters offer each other psychobabbling platitudes. Jake tells Maggie he thinks there's a problem in their marriage, and next thing you know, she's leaving him. I, for one, couldn't figure out what his problem was with her or hers with him.
Substituting insights from the analyst's couch for plot and character is a common practice among certain American script-writers -- many of them menopausal men and almost all of them hailing from one coast or the other. If you watch the HBO series Six Feet Under, you may notice the way interesting, original episodes alternate with sodden, boring ones, so that the fascinating Australian actress Rachel Griffiths, for instance, goes from being an enigmatic and inexplicably promiscuous young woman to an analysand whining about her own nymphomania. The show's tantalizing visual images stop being evocative and impossible to sum up in words and become tedious symbols of someone or other's neurosis.
In the same vein, Jake's Women transforms from a mildly amusing domestic comedy in the first act to a protracted exercise in navel gazing in the second.
Robert Reid, who plays Jake, is a solidly competent actor, but in this role he's not interesting enough to hold the evening together -- although I did find myself warming to his performance by the second act. Marian Rothschild is a spunky Maggie, and Linda Button brings a grounded and humorous quality to Edith, the shrink. Casey Anderson is a charming young Molly (it's rare to find an actress this age who's poised, intelligent and not self-consciously cute), and Misha Johnson is fun as the fling-about older version. Denise Perry, who plays sister Karen, has a lot of vitality; I'd like to have seen both her performance and that of Kathleen Trambley, as Sheila, more focused. Jessica Hudspeth makes a very appealing Julie. One senses that all of these actors could have used stronger and more meticulous direction from John Thornberry: Almost every one of the women has a tendency to get shrill when her character is angry or sad.
As is frequently the case at Nomad, the production values need refining. The set works conceptually, providing interesting playing areas and two levels for the action, but the details are shoddy, and surely a successful novelist wouldn't have living-room furniture this funky. The costumes are unflattering and do nothing to illuminate character. In short, a touch of Noel Coward's dry champagne wit would have helped both script and production.
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