By Amy J. Parrent
My late aunt Joyce, who’d raised four active kids and came from a family of – I’ll admit it – control freaks, once joked that she wished she could put everyone on puppet strings that she controlled.
And so it is with Jake in Neil Simon’s “Jake’s Women,” onstage at the Two Muses Theatre in West Bloomfield. A successful writer, Jake desires to rearrange the world in the same way he can rewrite the problematic middle section of a novel. He is seemingly so cut off, shut off, from his current wife and other loved ones, that he prefers the company of the imaginary version of all of them.
In this imaginary place, he can find comfort from both his away-at-college daughter and her 12-year-old self simultaneously. In this private world he can summon his sister anytime to chat. (But, we wonder, is she as theatrical as Jake envisions her? Or is he embellishing her personality – along with how much else?) And especially, it’s the one spot where he can still converse with his first wife, now dead a dozen years.
This is early ’90s Simon, a portrait of the artist as a middle-aged man with tragedy, regrets and demons – but still trying to cover it up his craziness with one liners. And though Jake is the central character, onstage for the entire night, the show certainly serves Two Muses’ mission to feature strong women’s roles, as seven actresses pop in and out of Jake’s life and subconscious.
“Jake’s Women” is drawn very much from Neil Simon’s own experience. Simon’s first wife, Joan, died; Jake was widowed at the death of Julie. Jake is undergoing a separation from second wife Maggie; Simon was married to and divorced a couple of times, including second wife Marsha Mason. Jake has a daughter, and Neil Simon … well, you get it.
The staging by Bailey Boudreau, set by Bill Mandt, and lighting by Lucy Meyo effectively reinforce this nebulous border between the Real World and the other world of Jake’s brain. Real-life conversations take place in a mellow yellow tone upstage, in the elevated but tightly confined area of Jake’s study, while the women of his pretend chats are free to wander the remainder of the stage.
On opening night, you could see some of the actors settling in, warming up to their characters. Robert Hotchkiss’ Jake may be a bit more Midwestern confused than New York neurotic, but notably he hardly punted a line in an evening where he’s onstage 99 percent of the time. Amy Morrisey as Jake’s current wife, Maggie, is the one actor called upon to extensively portray both the flesh-and-blood and “Jake’s version” of the character, and was particularly effective in the latter scenes.
Meredith Deighton brings a youthful freshness and then fire to the role of Julie, Jake’s late wife. In slightly smaller roles, Jake’s sassy daughters are both well played by Charlotte Weisserman (the younger Molly) and Egla Kishta.
Barbie Weisserman (who also doubled as costume designer) is the writer’s larger-than-life version of his sister Karen, who alternately listens to and challenges Jake. She and Jake’s therapist, Edith (Margaret Gilkes), are a duo of dames who don’t take any crap from him, even in his own musings.
The play picks up steam in the second act, as Jake, now living alone, becomes even more manic and lost. At one point he begs the latest girlfriend – played with East Coast brashness by Luna Alexander – to run off to an exotic locations, anything to escape the haunted house that is his mind. But the imaginary figment of Maggie taunts him into ruining that moment.
Just how do you pull a man who lives in his head for a living out of that rich place? How do you get him to turn that off? As someone yells at him, “If surgeons lived like you, they’d be cutting people up in elevators.”
But Jake veers away from his own immediate obsessions to observe that we may not all be writers, slaves to an almost too vivid imaginations, but we’ve all, in our own way, done what he does. We’ve experienced the three-in-the-morning musings over “What If,” wondering what a long-deceased father would be like if we could meet him again, or dreaming of the college boyfriend who got away.
There is nothing really revolutionary about the play, and no revelation about the human condition that hasn’t been observed in a million other works of fiction. And yet, it is hard not to be moved at moments in the piece, such as when Jake imagines his late wife and now-grown daughter meeting and weeping and just having the girl chats that never were.
At one point, Jake’s life is compared to a three-ring circus, where all his women are the horses and lions, and he’s the star, shot out of a cannon with a flag in his mouth. Aren’t we all trying to come down from up there and connect with the rest of the circus?
Two Muses Theatre
at Barnes and Noble Booksellers
6800 Orchard Lake Road, West Bloomfield
8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Nov. 21, 22, 28, 29, Dec. 5, 6
2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 16, 23, 30, Dec. 7
$18-20 in advance; $2 extra at the door