Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Jake's Women"

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"Jake's Women"

by Neil Simon
Staged by Bob Dolan

Technical Director Mike Drinkwater
Stage Manager Jenn Dolan
Assistant Stage Manager Pam Valeriani

Jake.......................Bob Dolan
Julie.................Lynda Newton
Molly (at 21).....Sasha Carrera
Edith...................Noel McCoy
Maggie.........Andrea Gargiulo
Sheila........Lauren Casagrande
Molly (at 12)........Aidin Carey
Karen.................Hillary Fabre

This brief production of "Jake's Women" brings together excellent work by playwright Neil Simon and by director and actor --- no, let's use the proper word --- Star Bob Dolan. Dolan plays, let's face it, a Neil Simon like-a-look --- a "novelist" whose reveries about the women in his life take palpable shape in his work-space and talk and argue with him. They often say what he wishes they'd say, and then giggle or argue over how trite or self-serving he has made them. Aside from these figments, the only real people in the play are Jake's second wife --- who finds him so distant she demands a separation --- and a bewildered new date who wanders, briefly, into an argument Jake is having with a figment of that very wife herself. This is a Neil Simon masterpiece, funny and serious and intensely personal --- a play in which every role interacts with the central character, often on several different levels of "reality". Given the excellence of Dolan's performance, these interactions are a good barometer of excellence for all of his women.

When his psychiatrist asks what one thing Jake would most like, he answers "to have the rest of my life together with my dead first wife." Settling his relations with that woman is the matter of this play, and Dolan's scenes with Lynda Newton --- the figment of that first wife (Julie) --- are sublime. This is the only "figment" who makes demands, who asks this creative artist to imagine her living past the 24th year in which she died, who asks to be imagined talking with the 21-year-old daughter who lost her mother at age four. This is a crux role, and Newton catches all of it. Her quick shock at becoming 35 ("Ugh! So what's it like to be fifty-three?"), her consternation at learning she's dead, her scenes with her daughter --- all of this she takes in stride, illuminates from inside, and plays as Bob Dolan's equal. She is, in a sense, the other Star of this production.

In a sense, Sasha Carrera has a much easier time playing Julie's daughter at 21, because she doesn't have to juggle ages, she just has to react. But her scene with that dead mother --- all in Jake's imagination, remember --- simply sings. Her tasks are simpler, and she has the help of excellent partners, but she reacts with relaxed sincerity at every moment.

Similarly, Noel McCoy's role as Jake's psychiatrist is a solid, straight character part. She asks hard questions, and moves the interest of the play to deeper introspections. Still, hers is an uncomplicated role efficiently approached. She has a tendency to push the comic quips from the outside, as though expecting laughs, and she feels more formal than relaxed. But she does play an "authority figure" and this doesn't disturb the basic fabric of the play.

Andrea Gargiulo has perhaps the most difficult role in the play. Maggie, Jake's second wife, admits to an affair and asks a separation, both in order to force Jake to face his problems --- and for this she must be strong while hopeful of the outcome. In addition, though, she plays the "figment" in Jake's mind of that same wife --- much more a manipulated marshmallow. Gargiulo manages the blandly equivocal figment, but loses any of the resolve this wife needs to win through to the play's final compromise. She always seems one-down, always overwhelmed by Dolan's Jake. She plants herself, firm and straight, in one position, then glues her elbows to her sides and makes her forearms into semaphore-signals. There's never anything really solid for Jake to push against, and eventually, to capitulate to. Without a solid Maggie who genuinely loves him and wants to renew their marriage on better footing, Jake becomes the only focus for the play.

Laura Casagrande's second-act scene as Sheila, one of the "dates" Jake has during the separation, is a set-piece. Behind her stands the figment of Maggie herself, whose conversation with Jake Sheila cannot hear. (When Jake quips in an aside "I feel like I'm in a Noel Coward retrospective!" it's this scene he refers to.) Maggie even apes Sheila's nervous arm-flailings (parodies, actually, of Andrea Gargiulo's own mannerisms), driving Jake to a frenzy and driving Sheila out the door. This is the one scene where Bob Dolan is weakest, turning Jake into a nervous, knee-jerk jerk spouting wilful insincerities. It is also true that here Doc Simon gives the poor actor no help whatever. This is also the worst written scene in the show.

Aiden Carey, who plays the figment of Molly (Jake's daughter) at twelve, has no technique as an actress, and needs none. She is a luminously beautiful girl who could be making a comfortable income as a model if she weren't too busy becoming a person; cameras cannot help but fall in love with such a face. I have seen her respond eloquently to good directors --- notably in "To Kill A Mockingbird" in Davis Square. Here she is asked not to act, but to be --- a little hesitantly, a little self-consciously, very vulnerably. There is no pretense in anything she does, and no art at all.

Hillary Fabre has no technique either, but as the figment of Karen, Jake's flaky nudge of a sister, she really needs some. Fabre swallows the ends of every phrase, postures, indicates, and continually stands outside the role commenting upon it with every line-reading. Since she is the second "figment" to appear, and the first one about whom Jake converses directly to the audience, these lapses have an effect on the fabric of the whole. In a sense, Karen is the quick-for-laughs figure Doc Simon relied on in most of his easy comedies; here, though, a distinction between easy schtick and self-aware sincerity is needed, and escapes Fabre's grasp.

So those are Jake's Woman, but what about Jake himself? This is a monumental role in which Bob Dolan must talk with his obstreperous figments, with real people, and with the audience itself. As written he plays much of this for laughs --- many at his own expense --- but much of it also with stinging self-realizations and hesitant self-revelations. Only in one insincere fling with a new date (a scene Neil Simon should rewrite some day) does Dolan falter. His asides and throw-aways are masterfully controlled, his ring-mastership of the action is solid yet unobtrusive, and the underlying doubts and fears of the character always creep up from the bedrock of his being. I had the rare privilege of seeing Neil Simon's "The Gingerbread Lady" in try-outs here in Boston, before he eviscerated that funny-yet-terrifying script into a crowd-pleasing comedy. I think "Jake's Women" is Doc Simon's masterpiece, and I thank Thespis the first time I saw it, it was under Bob Dolan's masterful control.


"Jake's Women" (till 23 May)
Studio Theatre, 69 Brimmer Street, BOSTON

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