'Jake's Women' remains flawed Simon

August 18, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

"Jake's Women" occupies a singular spot in the Neil Simon canon. In 1990, when the playwright nixed the show's Broadway opening after a run in San Diego, it became Simon's only Broadway-bound play to die out of town.

Two years later, a largely rewritten version made it to Broadway, although it was hardly one of Simon's runaway hits. Instead, "Jake's Women" remains more of a Simon curiosity. Now it is receiving its Baltimore premiere at the Vagabond Players -- warts and all.

The script dates from Simon's more serious, autobiographical period. But unlike his "Brighton Beach" trilogy, "Jake's Women" is an overtly psychological character study, and it exhibits one of the playwright's most adventuresome structures.

Vagabonds' director Rodney Bonds competently handles the structural challenges, which consist primarily of intermingling characters from the past and present -- a task that could have been more smoothly achieved with a less realistic set.

The chief problem, however, lies in the title character. By Simon's admission, Jake was the initial weak point back in San Diego. By the time the play opened on Broadway, Alan Alda had assumed the role, and while he may have been able to coax empathy out of this self-indulgent character, the Vagabonds' Jerry Riley is straining every inch of the way.

Not that he has an easy assignment. Jake is a writer who delights in controlling his characters and would like to extend that control intothe real world. So, when the various women in his life -- chiefly his late wife, current wife, sister, daughter and psychiatrist -- refuse to behave as he thinks they should, he contents himself with summoning them up in his imagination and putting words in their mouths.

The play's primary conceit, which is revealed in the first few minutes, is that the characters Jake imagines actually appear on TC stage. They mouth -- and often object to -- the dialogue he gives them, and occasionally they share the stage with the flesh-and-blood women who are beyond Jake's control.

By the second act, Jake can't even control the characters in his mind. They show up unsummoned, telling him, among other things, that he has a fear of intimacy.

Most of the Vagabonds' actresses have no trouble appearing warmer and more appealing than Jake. Diane Finlayson is especially funny as his brash sister; Janise Bonds is sweet as his frustrated second wife; Dyana Lyn Neal has an appropriately retro feel as his deceased first wife; and Amy Brennan and Kristin Kratfel exude filial support as his daughter, at different ages.

Simon is an accomplished craftsman, and he manipulates the play's conceit to construct scenes ranging from comic (when Jake's real-life girlfriend gets caught in the middle of an imaginary argument between Jake and his second wife), to touching (when Jake introduces his deceased first wife to their now-grown daughter). But a lot of the scenes are just plain didactic. At one point, when Jake is feeling particularly sorry for himself, his daughter says, "I thought self-pity was a no-no."

"Only on the stage," Jake replies. It's a small but telling example of a character exceeding the control of even skillful Neil Simon.

THEATER REVIEW

What: "Jake's Women"

Where: Vagabond Players, 806 S. Broadway

When: 8:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Sept. 11

Tickets: $9 and $10

$ Call: (410) 563-9135

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