Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Shel's Shorts"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2001 by Carl A. Rossi


By Neil Simon
Directed by Brian Triber

In this autobiographical play – about a writer and the women in his life – Jake, a successful New York-based author, and his wife Maggie, a businesswoman, are having marital problems, largely due to Jake's fear of intimacy and his tendency to view Life as yet another chapter to be written. Not knowing how to deal with a possible break-up, Jake conjures up in his mind – and who the audience sees on stage – various women to talk him through the crisis: his sister Karen, his late first wife Julie, two versions of their daughter Molly (as a child and as a young woman), and his analyst Edith. Maggie – who still loves her husband – does leave but returns at play's end to reconcile with Jake, who has had a sudden catharsis and is now ready to start reaching out to her as Jake the Person, not Jake the Writer.

If the above paragraph strikes you as being a bit pat, so is JAKE'S WOMEN. Neil Simon tries to have it both ways – to show himself as a serious dramatist in his depiction of a marriage on the rocks (no doubt based on his own marriage to actress Marsha Mason) and yet obliged as "Neil Simon" to dole out the required amount of laughs that his audiences have come to expect. "Neil Simon" wins out in the end, and "safe" rules; a compelling scene between Jake and Maggie is soon undermined by a comic one – either with Jake in a monologue to the audience or when he is paired with one of his women – to show what a lovable mess he is, while said women – based, no doubt, on Mr. Simon's sister, daughter, etc. – are as Nice as Nice can be (to keep Mr. Simon from getting sued?). What results is a talky one-man show with showcase turns for seven actresses (stepping through open picture frames in true Ziegfeld fashion), with some pop psychology thrown in. Had JAKE'S WOMEN ended with Act One – Maggie walking out on Jake, leaving him to be comforted by his Mollys – the moral would have been, "This is the price a writer must pay – sacrificing the real world for the ones he/she creates." And it would have worked. But something terribly wrong happens – and it's called Act Two. Somehow, Jake's women start to exist on their own: Karen and Edith share cocktails and gossip, even when Jake is out of the room; Julie and Older Molly have a mother-and-child reunion; and "Maggie" returns for a three-way conversation with Jake and Sheila, his current – and increasingly spooked – girlfriend. (Hello, BLITHE SPIRIT.) When the "new" Jake is born at play's end, his women vanish, leaving behind only the flesh-and-blood Maggie. But for how long? (My question; not Mr. Simon's.)

(A grievance: as a fellow scribbler, I take offense at writers being presented as grown-up children who spend too much time with computers and have to be coaxed outside for air and exercise – an all-too-easy explanation to audience members who do not know writers. (Writing is our PROFESSION, folks; not our hobby!) Ours is a solitary profession by nature, and the more we write and the better we become, the more we also have to give up in order to create. Yes, we do come out of our caves to socialize and grow fat, but then we retire again to spin out another tale. I know this, too, sounds a bit pat, but in this context, two can play this little game…. And these scribbles of mine you're now reading – they didn't get written by my going out for a walk, you know!)

Since Mr. Simon could not decide what he wanted here – comedy? drama? tragical-comical-historical-pastoral? – I cannot fault Ubiquity Stage too much for its production, which is dutiful, for lack of a better word; a child trotting obediently behind a parent with mood-swings. Had Mr. Simon himself played Jake, with the real-life counterparts of Jake's women, then the play would have been an Event (Welcome to "This is My Life!"); but lacking that, JAKE'S WOMEN needs Personality Actors. Unfortunately, Rick Carpenter is far too timid as Jake; he captures the reluctant, even frightened, small moments of a man unwilling to come out of his shell, but the sense of his being a Writer – the Magician of Words; the Ringmaster in his Brain Circus; even a hint of Genius – eludes him. Luckily, there is Julie Dapper's delightful Maggie – I can see why Jake can't stop thinking about her – this pixie possesses a husky/squeaky voice, both mannered and natural, that I found enchanting to listen to (anyone for PETER PAN?); and fun company can be found with Marian Myszkowski's warm, dowdy Karen (a St. Bernard in a gold lamι tent) and Rachael Rosner's Older Molly – sunshine friendly; a pal as well as a daughter.

But there ARE things I will mention re: this production:

First, the stage is too wide for its minimal set; there is a couch set far right and a bar set far left, leaving a desert smack at center stage where Jake and his Woman of the Moment meet for their exchanges (the depth of the stage is rarely used). Bring everything closer together, I say; shrink the proscenium with lights and curtains – this is a New York apartment, remember – and carefully choreograph these talking heads into IMAGES. (I tend to see Jake – the Writer – sitting down most of the time, with his creations dancing 'round him. That's another thing we writers do – we sit a lot.)

Second, Jake's women as played are far from cerebral; they clump on and off with no sense of weightlessness – and take forever to vanish, too. As with Ubiquity's LEAR, JAKE'S exits need to be timed; right now, these visions say their tag lines, turn, exit up the steps with a clump, clump, clump and exit, bumping into the curtains as they go.

Third, there is no sense of "New York" in this production. Mr. Simon's rhythms – no matter how universal he tries to be – always was and always will be New York-ese; Jewish New York-ese, if you want to zero in, with time-honored schtick and kvetch backing it up. New Yorkers move a certain way (compressed) and act a certain way (friendly but wary), and the native-born are blessed/cursed with a Mouth; when New Yorkers come home to their apartments, they may shut out the jungle, but its rhythms still course in their veins. Aside from Ms. Dapper's Maggie, whose dry looks and wound-up movements give us a taste of the Big Apple, these characters as played could be from – well, Boston. Big difference.

Several years ago, I saw another minor play in the Simon canon; I believe it was produced so that its theatre company could advertise "New England Premiere!" – and that play didn't amount to much, either. Now, if you want a minor Simon play written when he was in full throttle, why not try THE STAR-SPANGLED GIRL (1966)? I've haven't read it for decades, yet I remember it to be pretty funny and no one has done it for so long, it's practically new again….

"Jake's Women" (4 – 19 January 2002)
Tower Auditorium, Mass College of Art, 621 Huntington Avenue, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 470-5329

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