Every occupation has its hazards, but there's something about writing that lends itself to endless scrutiny and fascination in pop culture. Is it the necessary isolation, the ensuing ego, or the vulnerability of the act, perhaps? All of the above are key catalysts in Neil Simon's 1992 play "Jake's Women," which is being staged by Out of Pocket, Inc. at MuCCC through February 10.
As the play opens, we meet Jake, a successful middle-aged writer going through a separation with his second wife. The trouble is, he's never really moved on after the death of his first wife and it's affecting everyone else in his life, including his now 21-year-old daughter, Molly. Ross Amstey (Jake) is tasked with playing a very un-likeable character. Jake is a narcissistic man-child with serious mommy issues who refers to his therapist as an "analyst" and creates imaginary conversations with the women in his life because he's waiting around for them to start all the real ones. He calls these conversations "games," and shows his cards completely. "In games I never lose," he says, "and what I lose, I can rewrite."
Simon's wit, vocabulary, and flair for dialogue provide the cast with much material, and Director Stephanie Roosa does what she can with the varying skill levels in the ensemble. Cast members range in age and experience, from sixth grader Julia Santoli (Young Molly) to Barbara Lobb (Edith), who's been active in the local theater community for the past 30 years. Newcomer Rebecca Rajswasser (Maggie), who recently returned to the area from Florida, deftly executes a large role in the show as Jake's second wife, emitting a character who is both ambitious and self-deprecating.
The play presents a difficult template for actors, in that it requires many one-sided conversations. This is a challenge for even for the most talented ensemble — and it's no different here. Amstey has the lion's share of these conversations, and also breaks the fourth wall by directly addressing the audience throughout the show. It's clear that Jake is the narrator of sorts, and each scene has been penned by him for a purpose.
"I write to survive — it's the only thing that doesn't reject me," Jake says. Oh, boohoo, says the audience, as Jake turns around just to screw up a real life interaction with another woman in his life.
There are several really delightful performances throughout the show: Abby DeVuyst (Karen), in the role of Jake's romantically inept, movie-loving sister, munches popcorn onstage and expertly deadpans her way through every interaction. Kate Armstrong (Julie) is at once disarmingly naive and wonderfully stubborn as Jake's first wife. And Lobb, as the wisecracking analyst, grabs her fair share of audience laughs as well.
Lighting changes (design by Robert Caruso) help guide the audience from imaginary to real-life conversations, and sound design by AnneMarie Giannandrea (who also stage manages) peppers scene changes with late twentieth-century tunes. Costumes, also designed by Roosa, embrace the boxy shoulders and skirts, leather jackets, and turtleneck/cardigan combos of the early 90s.
While most of the plot is a frustrating spiral into Jake's psyche, an unexpectedly poignant moment happens during one of his audience addresses. Don't judge him for the voices in his head, he says, because everyone imagines, at 3 a.m., a conversation with a parent who passed away or someone we loved in college who married another. Several audience members flicked away tears.
Unfortunately, Simon created female characters who pander to Jake's every whim, and this play feels especially stale in the age of #MeToo and female empowerment. Even the name "Jake's Women" suggests a power play (albeit ironic or not) that isn't quite palatable.
Clocking in at almost three hours (including a 15 minute intermission), "Jake's Women" is a lengthy night at the theater. It's worth seeing how onstage conversations have changed since the early 90's — even if the fashion sense seems to have returned these days — but when it comes to Simon's greatest hits, "Jake's Women" will never top the list.