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No Time for Tears : With a new movie, a new play and the L.A. premiere of 'Rumors,' Neil Simon isn't grieving over his flop, 'Jake's Women'

July 08, 1990|JUDITH MICHAELSON

"But one of the reasons I think I probably won't try plays in Los Angeles again," he goes on, "is that I don't want to be put under that kind of spotlight while I'm trying something. . . . (San Diego's) the same thing. If (the Times) come down there and writes a review and we get clobbered, it becomes nationwide news. That goes on 'Entertainment Tonight.' But when I did 'Broadway Bound' and we opened at Duke (University in Durham, N.C.), nobody even reviewed it."

Not counting "Jake's Women," Simon has opened seven of his plays in Los Angeles and San Diego including "Brighton Beach Memoirs" and "Biloxi Blues" at the Ahmanson Theatre, "I Ought to Be in Pictures" at the Mark Taper Forum and "Rumors" at the Old Globe. In fact, for "Lost in Yonkers," he notes, "we'll go to some universities. . . . There's always that possibility of going back to Duke."

Since 1986, the theater department at Duke has tried out such pre-Broadway products as "Metamorphosis" with Mikhail Baryshnikov, "Long Day's Journey Into Night" with Jack Lemmon and "A Walk in the Woods" with Sam Waterston.

"Jake's Women" must need rewriting, otherwise he'd take it to Duke?

"Oh sure," replies Simon, "everything needs rewriting but 'Jake's Women' is a mystery to me. What Sylvie Drake saw that first night is a lot different than what we closed with. We were 75% better when we closed that play. If I had opened with that play then I might have known how to fix it. But it took me six weeks to get to that point, and I still hadn't achieved what I wanted. And we were heading right into New York. And I felt there were too many things wrong with the production from the writing to the set to the actors to the director. . . . The idea always was when you go to a place like San Diego or any other regional theater, that's your option. We can stop it here and not go on. So I did it. But me being me, it gets nationwide attention."

Asked what was wrong with the writing, Simon answers: "I wasn't able, quite able to tell the story of Jake. It got to be so much the story of the women"--his first wife, his second wife, his daughter, his sister, his therapist--"and how they felt about him, but we didn't get to know Jake enough."

To the Times' Drake, "Jake is very neurotic and Jake is not a nice man."

'I think if you knew what his inner thoughts were you wouldn't think that way," says Simon. "But I'd have to find a way to do it.

Perhaps he needs to tell the story of Jake, he says, "through narration, of having Jake talk to the audience"--much the way it's done in the "Brighton Beach" trilogy. "Then you would get to know who he is and like him better. . . .

"If I had taken the route of just keeping going like August Wilson does from regional theater to regional theater, I would have done it," says Simon. "But we couldn't do that the way we were set up. We had to go into New York. The actors we signed would only play for six weeks and go to New York. August Wilson had these actors out for two years in 'Piano Lesson.'

"Don't forget," he continues, "I was working without a director for the first time in my life. The first director was fired just before we went into previews, and Jack O'Brien (the Old Globe's artistic director), as good as Jack is and he's very good, could only work on weekends. So I was staging things myself when I should have been in the motel rewriting."

As for the actors, he says he's "been on Broadway too many times to know this was not going to work. . . . I had some actors in there--Stockard Channing in particular, and Joyce Van Patten, who were just sensational."

And Peter Coyote, who was Jake? "Peter Coyote is a wonderful actor," he replies. "I'm not sure he's the right man for this play. That doesn't detract from his abilities."

He doesn't know when he will do "Jake's Women" again. If he knew how to fix the play, "I'd rewrite it now and do it. But it's not in my mind now. 'Jake' will just sit in there. You know how long 'Brighton Beach' sat in the drawer before I actually went and did it? From the time I wrote 35 pages till the time I finished and did it was nine years. . . . But I have no reason to do it right now because I'm more excited about the new play or the new movie I'm writing or the one that we're shooting.

"I've done 25 shows already, 24 shows, and the fact that I didn't bring one of them in, it's like it's some sort of major failure. I was unhappy it didn't work but I'd be unhappier if I thought it was great, and I brought it in and it got smashed by everybody."

Marvin Neil Simon, who grew up not in Brighton Beach but in Washington Heights in upper Manhattan, never thought he'd write three plays about someone named Eugene Morris Jerome.

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