Neil Simon’s Jake’s Women, currently running through Feb. 27 at the Vexler, shows a surprisingly novel side to Simon’s oeuvre: his self-indulgent side. Here, the master of one-liners and quips—who first cut his teeth on Sid Caesar’s Show of Shows—jettisons his traditional strengths in fast-paced situational comedy, and instead composes a metaphysical piece about the loneliness and neuroses of a Manhattan-based writer haunted in his mind by the visions of his “women”: wives, girlfriends, daughter, therapist, and sister. (There’s also, for good measure, a cringe-inducing dea ex machina.) As Jake struggles to keep his marriage intact, he remains disturbed by the premature death of his first wife, as well as by demons born from a troubled childhood. Will Jake make it to the end of the evening with his sanity intact?
To be frank, it’s difficult to care: Jake is such a zero as a character—so boring—you can’t imagine why any women are attracted to him (or why you’d craft a play around him). Worse yet, the entire piece revolves around largely generic arguments and recriminations, replete with such clichéd charges as “you never listen to me,” “there’s a gulf between us as wide as the Grand Canyon,” etc, etc, etc. Any episode of Dr. Phil is as entertaining, and pitched at about the same level of psychological complexity; we discover, for instance, that Simon’s ultimate solution to marital crises is to be less guarded and “to be yourself.” Really? Jake’s real self seems to be a philandering narcissist; what Jake requires is a total personality makeover, not glib reassurances concerning his intrinsic self-worth.
Jim Mammarella’s stripped-down production—a bare stage and no props—only emphasizes the weakness of the script: there are a lot of words in Jake’s Women, but little poetry. (Indeed, Simon’s ear has never seemed so tin.) Melissa Gonzalez spices things up in the second act as potential wife #3, and there’s very good work by Chelsea Dyan Fry as wife #2 to Marc Daratt’s Jake. But the play’s semi-autobiographical material was mined to far greater effect in Simon’s Chapter Two—and it’s baffling why the Vexler thought this minor 1992 effort was worth reviving at all. Surely there were stronger contenders for a “straight play” this spring.