Everyone who has ever known anyone has talked to people while they weren’t there. The little fractions of imagination required to talk to people without them knowing about it keeps most people psychologically well adjusted. Everyone knows that. Not everyone writes a play about it, though. With Jake’s Women, Neil Simon explores imaginary conversations as they relate to writers and other people who suffer. The Sunset Playhouse in Elm Grove continues its season with a thoughtful, tender production of Simon’s comic drama.
Michael Chobanoff stars as Jake, a frazzled writer trying to confront his wife Maggie (Coleen Tutton) about the growing emotional distance between the two of them. Jake’s imagination is frequently visited by women he’s known over the course of his life. When he needs advice, for instance, he imagines conversations with his sister Karen (a brashly witty Jamieson Hawkins). When he feels the need to be comforted in a variety of different ways, he has conversations with his daughter Molly (played as a precocious girl by seasoned child actress Molly Langhenry and as a young adult by Shannon Ishizaki).
Ruth Arnell rounds out the cast as a young woman named Sheila. When Jake and his wife try some time away from each other, Jake dates Sheila to fill the void of intimacy in his life. She’s attractive. She’s affectionate. But she doesn’t know him, so there’s no real substantial intimacy. We see him speak with her while his mind is casually falling apart. It develops into a cleverly written dialogue between Jake, Sheila and Jake’s uncontrolled imaginary interruptions by Maggie. It’s an almost musical bit of three-part comedy. Arnell (who appeared as the female lead in Sunset’s production of The Seven Year Itch last season) is an excellent comic beauty, almost flawlessly performing her part in the three-person interaction. Happening early on after a 15-minute intermission, that dialogue is the last bit of truly inspired work on Simon’s end of things before the final curtain. Much of the last act is spent slowly wrapping things up in the most obvious way possible. The ending is far too tidy for the complexities Simon introduces in the hour or so before intermission.
The cast glides through Simon’s occasional flashes of wit and brilliance with only a few moments of friction between stage and script. Chobanoff tackles the central role here remarkably well. There are occasional exchanges of dialogue where both he and Simon are synching up on the same inspiration at the same time, which tend to be really magical moments in the play. The problem is that moments of true inspiration are far too infrequent. Jake’s Women, is a solid comedic drama that could’ve been genius. The Sunset Playhouse production reaches out to the high points in the script enough to make it well worth seeing. VS
Sunset Playhouse’s production of Jake’s Women runs now through January 28th in Elm Grove. Tickets can be purchased by calling the ticket office at 262-782-4430 or online at www.sunsetplayhouse.com.