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THEATER REVIEW : Simon's 'Jake' Is Right This Time


Anyone who saw Neil Simon's "Jake's Women" on Broadway will detect little difference in the robust production that opened Thursday at the Doolittle Theatre.

All but the director are present and accounted for and doing what they've been doing in New York since March, 1992. But those who only saw "Jake's Women" in San Diego in 1990 (with actor Peter Coyote in the title role) owe themselves a trip to the Doolittle to see how far that play has come.

It is one of Simon's most personal pieces to date, not because Alan Alda's wistful and neurotic Jake--a writer who feels more at home in his fantasies than in the real world--is so transparently modeled on Simon himself, but because the raw nerves the play touches are clearly Simon's own, presumably still just as raw.

To be truthful about yourself in the bittersweet glow of a backward glance (as in Simon's autobiographical Brighton Beach trilogy) is one thing. To look at yourself in the mirror and write about what you see there now, without embellishments, is another.

That takes guts. Simon hadn't mustered them yet when "Jake's Women" played San Diego, but he knew enough to abort a projected New York opening at the time. The rewritten "Jake's Women" that hit Broadway two years later was a real play--and is the show now on view at the Doolittle.

The central conceit is that Jake, a writer, widowed, remarried and grappling with emotional problems, spends much of his time talking about them with the women in his life--whether alive or dead, in the room or in his mind.

His first wife, Julie (a delightfully impulsive Kate Burton), died too soon and Jake has not made an entirely fair adjustment to his second wife, Maggie (Helen Shaver). With his new marriage in trouble, Jake deliberates with his analyst, sister, daughter, first wife, second wife and date, real or imagined.

This mixing up of fantasy and reality cleverly allows us to watch a man in crisis trying to come to grips with problems of intimacy, expectations and control. It also makes for funny scenes--none funnier than the one in which a real-life date named Sheila (a sane Talia Balsam), gets caught in the verbal cross-fire between Jake and the imaginary Maggie, sending poor Sheila bolting from the room.

But for the most part, the play's color and substance lie in Jake's conversations with his protective sister Karen (the vivid Brenda Vaccaro), his caring analyst Edith (Joyce Van Patten, accurately described by Jake as "a mother with a diploma"), his daughter Molly at age 12 (a refreshingly direct Genia Michaela) and age 21 (Maura Russo, the only cast member to have joined the New York company later in the run) and, of course, his wives, Julie and Maggie.

Where the San Diego Jake had come off as an unredeemable jerk, this one invites us to like him by being able to admit to certain painful failings. This makes Jake vulnerable and a lot more human. Hearing those feelings matched by Maggie's own admissions of imperfection, we find ourselves rooting for them both and hoping that the marriage will survive.

A lot of this new dimension is in Simon's writing (or rewriting). "Jake's Women" has a good deal more going for it than one-liners. But one cannot ignore the contributions Alda and Shaver make to their pivotal roles. They bring just what is needed to the troubled relationship to make it salvageable: warmth, honesty and intelligence.

Intelligence above all. Alda is as comfortable as an old slipper--almost too relaxed at times--and Shaver has restraint, elegance and class. Not a misstep between them.

A year's run has only seasoned the excellent supporting cast and sharpened the balance of comedy and feeling they bring to the play.

The context is rich. Vaccaro as a caring Jewish sister has the chutzpah without the irritation that often goes with it; Van Patten is a serious therapist if an outspoken one, and the moving second act scene between the departed Julie and her much-alive Molly at 21 is expertly crafted to springboard this play to its tender, tentative conclusion.

Santo Loquasto's airy, divided set, warmly lit by Tharon Musser, wastes space but provides a sense of the mental as well as physical surroundings of the piece. Loquasto's costumes do what costumes should: They enhance character.

Gene Saks is the director of record and it is certainly his witty, contained staging we see here. But Saks, who was recently fired from Simon's musical of "The Goodbye Girl" by producer Emanuel Azenberg (also a producer of this play), has not been near "Jake's Women" at the Doolittle. It is production stage manager John Brigleb who was responsible for getting the Saks staging in working order.

This he's done, although a brisker pace, particularly in the second half, wouldn't hurt. But "Jake's Women"--wise, rueful, ironic and gently self-deprecating--remains one of Simon's most mature and enjoyable works.

* "Jake's Women," Doolittle Theatre, 1615 N. Vine St., Hollywood. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m.; Sundays April 18, 25, May 2 and 9 at 7 p.m.; Thursday matinees May 13, 20, 27, June 3, 10, 17 and 24 at 2. Ends June 27. (213) 365-3500, (714) 740-2000. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.

Alan Alda Jake

Helen Shaver Maggie

Brenda Vaccaro Karen

Genia Michaela Molly (at 12)

Maura Russo Molly (at 21)

Joyce Van Patten Edith

Kate Burton Julie

Talia Balsam Sheila

A presentation of the Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre in association with Emanuel Azenberg. Director Gene Saks. Playwright Neil Simon. Sets and costumes Santo Loquasto. Lights Tharon Musser. Sound Tom Morse. Production stage manager John Brigleb. Stage manager Elsbeth M. Collins.

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