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LET IT LIE

for The Brooklyn Paper
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No one’s perfect, either in life or in art. Certainly, no playwright creates a perfect work every time he sets pen to paper. Shakespeare, if the truth were known, undoubtedly had his flops, and we may assume they died a quiet death and were buried.

If Neil Simon is not exactly the Shakespeare of modern times, he’s definitely a playwright whose enormous scope, success and sheer output manage to rival that of the Bard himself. But it seems that even his most lifeless plays are not allowed to die. A good example is "Jake’s Women."

The semi-autobiographical play is about Jake, an author who works out his real-life problems through imaginary conversations with people from his past and present. "Jake’s Women" was first produced in San Diego in 1990, directed by Jack O’Brien and starring Peter Coyote as Jake and Stockard Channing as Jake’s wife, Maggie. Initial plans to bring the play to Broadway were changed due to unfavorable reviews.

That should have told Simon something, but apparently the play’s theme was too close to the playwright’s heart and so he reworked the structure, rewrote every scene and redid the set concept. He also got Alan Alda to play the lead and save the play from its own shortcomings - or at least make it somewhat successful on Broadway. "Jake’s Women" even had a limited run after moving to Los Angeles, and in 1996 was made into a television movie on CBS.

Go figure.

This month, the Heights Players are producing yet another revival, this time directed by Steve Velardi and starring John Pepi (previously seen in the Heights Players’ production of "Lost in Yonkers") as Jake.

Go figure, again.

"Jake’s Women" rides on all or most of Simon’s hobbyhorses - unfulfilled marriages, the difficulty of commitment and closeness, the strength and fragility of children, and the enduring power of love and laughter. The problem with this play is that it often seems like a soap opera masquerading as a comedy, or a comedy that’s really a long therapy session.

Jake is a middle-aged writer with a lovely second wife, Maggie (Eve Hall) and a charming daughter, Molly, who has grown from an adorable preteen (Chelsea Hess) into a mature young woman (Kimberly Gray). But Jake is still haunted by the memory of his first wife, Julie (Tarissa Day), who died in an automobile accident almost 20 years ago.

Jake’s devotion to his work, his emotional distance and his failure to fulfill Maggie’s needs (never clearly defined) have all led to her asking for a (hopefully) temporary separation. Unable to figure out what’s gone wrong or how to fix it, Jake summons up his dead wife, his daughter (both as a child and an adult), his sister Karen (Susan Montez), and his psychoanalyst Edith (Leni Tabb), hoping one or all of them can help him.

Illuminated by one of several hanging light fixtures, which they turn on and off, they advise and admonish. The resulting repartee is alternately sincere and ironic, merry and malicious.

Now let’s be clear. Simon, even at his worst is not all that bad. His dialogue may be a string of one-liners, but they’re sometimes genuinely funny. And as a writer, he may be a little too hung up on the hang-ups of middle-class America: materialism, psychoanalysis, ambition, closeness, personal space, self-fulfillment, youth, lost youth, looks and lost looks. But he does have a way of piercing us to the core and tickling our funny bone at the same time.

The Heights Players’ production has a few other advantages - namely, excellent direction and a fine cast.

Pepi, who is onstage throughout the play, delivers a tireless performance as Jake even when Simon’s repetitions become tiresome. And he manages to maintain that same guy-in-the-street quality that makes Alda so popular.

Montez is a particularly talented comedic actress who possesses that gift of being funny without saying a word. As Jake’s good-natured, long-suffering and wise-ass sister, she’s superb.

Tabb, another Heights Players veteran, is at her best as Edith, a role she saves from stereotype by her subtle balance of the serious and the silly.

Velardi, who has been with the Heights Players for a number of years but has just recently begun flexing his muscles as a director, shows considerable talent putting the play together and keeping it moving. It’s a pleasure to see him in action.

If you liked "Jake’s Women" then this production is a must-see. But even if you are one of those people who don’t think Simon is god’s gift to Broadway and believe "Jake’s Women" is not one of his more brilliant gems, this production deserves your attention if only as a showcase for fine talent. At times, it’s also a lot of fun.

 

"Jake’s Women" plays through Jan. 20, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 2 pm. Tickets are $10, seniors and students $8. The Heights Players theater is located at 26 Willow Place. For reservations, call (718) 237-2752.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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