Jake’s Women is billed as a comedy. It does have some laughs, but it’s actually a far more complex and apparently semi-autobiographical reworking of attempts to manage the tragedy of loss, a theme that Simon has played out before, in Second Chance (another play that didn’t quite work because it was too close to his bone).
And it helps to understand Jake’s Women if we know that Joan, Simon’s first wife and the mother of his two daughters, not only died of cancer, but has been described as the great love of his life. Especially if we realise that she died more than 20 years before Jake’s Women was written in 1995; and that that play reprises the feelings he first exposed in Second Chance, written in 1977 based on what appears to have been Simon’s too-hasty remarriage in 1973, the year of Joan’s death. Three divorces later, it is clear that Simon who has described himself as “a marrying man” is still struggling to resolve his need for a present wife with his yearning for his great love, frozen in his past, and encapsulated in one of his earliest and best-known plays, Barefoot in the Park.
I have to admit that I didn’t know all of this before I saw the play. But I felt it. So I wasn’t surprised with what I found when I went on the net and looked at some of the more than half a million items that Google brings up for “Neil Simon”. Out of them, also, came the following quotes, which between them say a lot about what you’ll see in Jake’s Women. Simon has described his development as a playwright as going from asking himself “What is a humorous situation?” to asking “What is a sad situation and how can I tell it humorously?”. And his answer may lie in what a critic has summed up as plays comprising an oeuvre that is known for having “family-based New York settings, where world-weary characters use one-liners to hide often-fractured psyches”.
So, how well does all this work in practice? In the case of this production from Stagewise and directed by Len Granato, something like the curate’s egg. That is, good in parts. The unevenness comes from two sources: the play and the players. The play divides Jake’s women into two groups: those in and those out of his head. In other words, we see his internal dialogues scripted by himself, as one does in such conversations with key women in his imagined scenarios; and we also see his interchanges with two of the same women, in his real life. And the words he gets to put into the mouths of the women in his imagination work better than what the real women have to say.
In particular, when it comes to trying to write for a youngish woman in her own right, Simon shows the difficulties that one could expect from a gentleman of the old school (he was born in 1926), trying to express the perspective of a post-feminist female. As delivered by Samantha Rice, playing Jake’s current wife Maggie, it comes across as a stilted and somewhat perfunctory litany of politically correct woes.
And this is partly due to the other reason for the unevenness of this production: a division of the players into those who are able to give their one-liners the crisp, clear snap that makes them work, and those whose voices sometimes get swallowed up and trail away into the nether regions of the stage. Both Rice and Rachel Lester, the young adult daughter Molly-in-the-mind, have some problems in this area. At the same time, however, Rice does a neat act of switching between the demands of her two-hander, as the in- and the-out-of-mind Maggies, while Lester’s Molly comes across as a warm and loving support for her Dad.
Of those with a zippier approach to their parts, for me the standout is Judy Hainsworth, who plays 12-year-old Molly with a bright, juvenile preppiness that belies the years she must actually carry as a university drama student. Canadian Laura Wilde adds another string to her versatile bow of performances and is able to use her accent to advantage in this play, as Karen, Jake’s bossy but loving sister. And Sue Nye brings a brisk Englishness to the role of his psychiatrist, Edith. Sandra Harman gives first wife Julie a troubled sweetness as the central figure with whose memory Jake is struggling to break out of the idealised image in which he has cast her (and if that sounds complicated, it’s because it is). Annett Wallace’s Sheila, a girlfriend of Jake’s, plays a pivotal role in drawing together Jake’s inner and outer worlds.
And what of Jake himself? As played by Cameron Castles, who brings the grumpy charm of a youngish Charles Laughton to the part, he works hard and often effectively, but does flag sometimes in a demanding role that requires him to be on stage virtually all the time, for obvious reasons. And his state of mind is very capably mirrored by Anne Lyon’s stage set: with packing cases of all sizes to show a man on the move, but so indecisive that he doesn’t know whether he’s coming or going from his life, as his women are repeatedly unpacked and repacked into their boxes.
Overall and bottom line, however, I’m not sure that Jake’s anguish works well as comedy; and funny as this production is in parts, it does highlight the horns of that dilemma.