Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Jake's Women

Not all Neil Simon shows are The Odd Couple. As obvious as that statement may seem, don't expect anything like Oscar and Felix if you go to see Jake's Women at Knock 'Em Dead.

While it has its punchlines (I could do without the dated Ed Koch jokes, but a lot of the other lines are very witty), Jake's Women is considerably heavier than most of Simon's comedies. Sometimes it seems like it's trying too hard, and trying to be too many things. (I should be clear that that's a complaint about the script, not the production.) Jake's Women is a look inside the mind of a writer named Jake who likes to imagine conversations with the important women in his life and how he wishes they'd gone, instead of what is said in real life. His wife, his late wife, his sister, his daughter (at two ages) and his analyst all show up on stage and play out the conversations taking place in his mind. The play is also about divorce (well, separation); about letting go of a dead loved one; about trying to make someone take the place of someone you've lost; about seeing children grow up; about missing children growing up; about discovering your true self instead of letting others define you; about overcoming a disfunctional childhood; about overcoming the distance in a marriage; about gender politics; about being a writer; about trying to control other people; about not being able to pull yourself away from your work. In the end, for me, I think the multiple themes got to be just a little too much.

Perhaps what I see as thematic overkill is Simon's way of exploring himself, since the play seems to be semi-autobiographical, especially since many of Jake's faults -- specifically, being self-centered, standoffish and manipulative -- are chalked up to him being a writer. (Or that he is a writer because he is those things -- chicken/egg.) But that's another thing that annoys me about the play. The goal of most writers is not to manipulate their characters -- it's to create them and then give them as much free rein as possible. When they succeed, even they don't know how their story is going to end until they've reached the end. I guess the whole premise rings a little false to me, and part of the problem is that if you take this premise through to its logical conclusion -- if writing is just a way for writers to make the world and the people in it behave the way they want them to -- what does that say about this play? [Spoiler] The ending rings false because it makes you wonder if this is just a way to write life so he gets the girl, so she comes back to him.

The rest of the script is hard to critique, since most of the dialogue and characterization goes on in Jake's head. If a line doesn't sound natural, doesn't sound like anything anyone would ever say -- well, usually it's not meant to. Jake gives the women in his head dialogue that flatters him incessantly, or makes them sound silly and foolish so he can dismiss their opinions and rob them of power, or gives them tender, supportive, sympathetic lines when he feels like being coddled. It's effective in that it supports the structure of the play -- but it also has the effect of never allowing us to have a true view of many of the characters as real people, only as Jake wants us to see them. Jake's late wife Julie, for instance, is too perfect to be human. The one exception is Maggie, Jake's current wife -- and that's because we see actual conversations between the two of them, not just the conversations in Jake's head.

That doesn't stop the actors from making the most of their roles (full disclosure -- I know about half the people in the show). Autumn Kersey does a wonderful job differentiating the real Maggie from the one in his head, who is sometimes flattering and playing along, and later toys with his mind as Jake begins to self-destruct. Director Kevin Kimsey plays Jake, and I think his best scene was in the first act when he asks Maggie if she's had an affair -- and immediately realizes what a stupid question that was to ask.

Becky Jaynes is sweet and likeable as Julie, but later shows a powerful emotional range as she interacts with her daughter and, in Jake's imagination, tries to make up for years of parenting she missed because she died young. Leisha Cook seemed a little flighty at first as his 21-year-old daughter Molly, but she too showed a great deal of depth in the scene where she interacts with Julie.

Two actors are listed for the 12-year-old version of Molly -- Madison Squires and Tayler Flowers. I'm not sure which one I saw, but both of them are new to acting according to their biographies in the program. Whichever of them I saw, I thought she did a nice job of playing a little girl who often has to be more grown-up than her dad.

Debbie Southworth was delightful as Jake's alternately kooky and sage analyst. Allison Remley plays his sister, and her line delivery underscored the "meta" nature of the play; she's very self-aware that she is a construct of his mind playing a part he's given her to play, and she gives overly dramatic reads to some of her lines, then punctuates them with an eager, "See? This is how you should write me. You should give me more lines like these." Fonda Portales plays "that Sheila woman," a girl Jake starts seeing to try to forget Maggie; while her character is written as kind of a stereotypical ditz, Portales has some nice physical comedy bits with Kersey, which they perform well. Kevin Kimsey shows are always well blocked, and the chase scene with Kersey and Portales shows it.

Kimsey used a different colored light for each of the characters that appear in Jake's mind. During the first time this happened, I thought it was a nice visual cue -- I immediately knew something was up, and little clues in the dialogue confirmed later that the woman he was talking to wasn't in the room, but in his head. For the most part, I liked this technique, but halfway through the play the limitations of this technique become apparent: In a key conversation, the audience isn't allowed to guess if the person onstage is real and the conversation is taking place, or if it's all in Jake's head. The dialogue would have given it away soon enough, but the lighting gives it away immediately. Kimsey tends to trust his audience to get these things most of the time, so it's unfortunate that by using the colored lights -- an otherwise nice touch -- he had to tip his hand.

No comments: