Monday, April 4, 2016

Jake’s Women (1996)

Following Neil Simon’s critical and commercial success on Broadeway with Lost In Yonkers, he followed-up with a play he’d been tinkering around with since the late 80s. Jake’s Women had its public debut in California in 1990, but Simon rewrote most of it before its Broadway debut in 1990. It reunited his talent with those of Alan Alda, the first time since 1978’s California Suite. It follows the life of a novelist/teacher in his late-50s, probably the most closely autobiographical character the playwright has so far crafted. Simon was still unofficially exiled from Hollywood at this point, so the medium which carried the film adaptation was television, CBS to be exact. It aired in March of 1996, to modest ratings. Not that the stage version fared any better: it closed after seven months.

Jake is a widower of about twenty years who is currently undergoing a separation from his current wife, Maggie. That’s the basic framework here. The catch? Jake, as a writer far too imaginative for his own good, is constantly visited by the women in his life, living or dead, completely in his mind. They interact with him, and each other, often while he is trying to converse with real women (there are no other male characters here besides Jake). The women are:

·   Maggie, his wife (Anne Archer), who is mostly real but occasionally pops up as a spirit, mostly to monitor his goings-on in his temporary singlehood.

·   Karen, his sister (Julie Kavner), who imparts words of wisdom during his more dramatic moments, whether he wants to hear them or not.

·   Julie, his deceased wife (Mira Sorvino), who is eerily aware of her forthcoming death at 35, but relies on Jakes imaginings to give here an awareness beyond her mortality.

·   Edith, his therapist (Joyce Van Patten), who does all that a therapist does, but now must make cerebral house calls.

·   Molly, his daughter (Kimberly Williams), who gets the rare chance, imaginarily, to meet her dead mother. She’s also depicted at the age of 12, where she gets to approve or disapprove of Maggie.

·   Shelia, his girlfriend, briefly (Lolita Davidovich). She bears the full brunt of his psychosis when he proposes a zillion different things for them to do, then yells at her to get out, actually meaning it for his hallucination of Maggie.

Clearly this guy has some issues. But does he really? Don’t we all have these phantoms inside our heads, and if you’re as much in love with women as Jake is, these phantoms tend to be of the female variety. When all is said and done, Jake evicts these distaff spirits within him, without him – and his present situation is mended as a result. (Maggie uses her time away to find a marriage-desirous man, but turns him down at the restaurant where Jake comes back to her.) Jake catches a glimpse of phantoms one more time, but then bids adieu. Memories of the past are a good thing, until they interfere with the present – and the future.

As I mentioned earlier, this is as close to Neil Simon’s own life as a writer that I’ve seen. Floating between past and present, with all the women that have have mattered in his life, Jake approximates so many other haunted protagonists of the theater (Willy Loman comes immediately to mind). This is the literary embodiment, I think, of Simon’s amorous yet tortured soul – his ghosts come not with dour tidings but punchlines, albeit punchlines informed with the wit and wisdom of relationships in 20th century New York. It all works with all the power of fine drama alnd also the warm, witty humor that we all associate with Neil Simon stagecraft.

In short, it’s an absolute masterpiece.

I know, that being a TV production (and Hallmark-produced at that), it has all the trappings of the all-too-safe sitcom style. That said, although the direction doesn’t offer much of a filmic point of view, and lacks upscale production value, it doesn’t interfere with the purity of the play’s text, either. I pretty much got the sense that I was watching the play, and given the author’s prodigious talent, that’s A-OK with me. The star of the show is really Simon’s brilliant dialogue, and nothing really eclipses that here.

Oh, and the other star? Alan Alda. He fits Simon’s writing like a glove. There were times when I was watching this that I felt like I was watching a Larry Gelbart-penned episode of M*A*S*H (Gelbart, along with Woody Allen and Simon, forms my holy trifecta of brilliant comedy writers). He delivers these lines with overt Vaudevillian flair, emotional turmoil, nuance, subtlety, depth, daring and transcendence – all at once, sometimes. He is the superb mouthpiece for Simon’s multifaceted quips, and as far as I can tell, he retains the complete essence of his Broadway performance right here.

When he’s not playing verbal volleyball with the women inside his head, he’s being serious, and the relationship that depicts that most profoundly is the one between him and Julie, his deceased wife. In the hands of a lesser writer, the whole conceit of her as a dead woman acutely aware of his summoning her up, and the fact that she knows of her death at 35 (he imagines her at 25), could easily be messy and confusing. But it all works clearly and heart-wrenchingly – and it all comes to a head with the climax of the movie, when Jake has Julie meet her adult daughter, Molly. It’s a recipe for disaster, and he knows it, but things strangely work out in the end, and it helps Jake move on past his female fixations. This scene is not simply the best scene in the film; it’s also among Simon’s best work, mixing laughs and tears as only he knows how.

I don’t know for sure, but I can only imagine Simon must’ve been frustrated over the middling reaction to a work he clearly poured his heart and soul into. The year after Jake came and went on Broadway, he penned the book for his Goodbye Girl musical, as well as a new play, Laughter on the 23rd Floor. In 1995, he finished his “Suite” trilogy with London Suite, but, no longer having he big Broadway clout he once enjoyed, he opened it Off-Broadway, where it played for just over five months. After that, the hits were scarce, and one can only help but to wonder why plays like this one weren’t the sellout successes of its predecessors from the 1960s and 70s. Perhaps the times changed – maybe newer, zippier writing styles were taking over. The know the kind – hipper-than-thou characters reciting contrived dialogue with no “breathing room,” as I like to call it.

They can have that crap. I’ll take this one, thanks.

Stage in Simons life: It’s pretty autobiographical, and confesses the writer’s curse of constant imagining, as well as the gynophile’s curse of loving women entirely too much. 

Rating: ****

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