There is a telling moment late in the second act of Neil Simon's drearily autobiographical "Jake's Women." Jake, a writer, has been discussing his relationships with women for the past two hours. He sits at his computer at the back of the stage and watches dramatizations of these relationships in the foreground. As he does so he asks, "If I can create that intimacy, why can't I experience it in real life?"
This is the sort of question Jake (or perhaps Neil) should be asking his shrink, not his audience. I only hope his shrink is not of the orthodox, noncommittal school who will respond with no more than a sagacious "Hmmmm." I hope he will be more aggressive with his patient.
I hope he will point out that in fact the scenes he has created aren't all that intimate, even if the characters say things like, "There's pain here and we're not going to be able to do anything until we get in touch with our emotions." I hope the shrink will urge Neil to leave that sort of grandiloquence to the pros.
I hope the shrink can get him to examine Jake's statement, "I don't write because I'm good at it. I write to survive." Survive, the key word here, implies the pain of outliving another person.
One of Jake's women is a wife who died young, as Simon's first wife did. From this you might imagine Simon's subsequent writing has been an attempt to grapple with this admittedly grievous situation. Sometimes it has been. Generally his chief concern has been creating laughs, without regard to psychological truth.
Humor is indeed a way to create intimacy, to illuminate relationships. Simon's broad, even coarse humor, however, creates distance rather than warmth or closeness.
Interestingly, "Lost in Yonkers," the play he wrote between versions of "Jake's Women," is also about someone who keeps theoretical loved ones at a distance. The icy Grandma Kurnitz, however, is ultimately more sympathetic than Jake. Simon's imagination is better at creating fanciful figures than replicating people closer to home.
Even Alan Alda, Mr. Congeniality, cannot persuade us that Jake really desires self-knowledge. Flashing his "aw, shucks" modest smile, Alda projects a self-satisfaction too complacent for Jake's over-wrought self-obsession. (Woody Allen used this subtextual smugness well in "Crimes and Misdemeanors." Here it's almost too honest for the play.)
Helen Shaver is beguiling as the woman who most captivates him (the role I assume Marsha Mason will do in the film). Santo Loquasto's huge set remains mostly unused. The emptiness is least apparent when Brenda Vaccaro and Joyce Van Patten are around. You wish it were more often.
Kate Burton and Tracy Pollan are strong in thankless roles. The play itself is thankless and dishonest, constantly congratulating Jake for facing truths his facile humor helps him evade.
Imagine Luigi Pirandello meeting Sid Caesar on a Brooklyn sidewalk and deciding to rewrite Arthur Miller's "After the Fall" in the style of Neil Simon. You wouldn't expect it to be a success, would you?
A mishmash of fact, fantasy and memory, with people floating wisecracks into thin theatrical air, while the author bares his soul for occupational therapy cum career strategy. No, you wouldn't expect it to be a success - but you would be utterly wrong.
Neil Simon's latest memory play, "Jake's Women," which opened last night at the eponymous Neil Simon Theater, has been a long time aborning since its disastrous first version in San Diego. But it has emerged charmingly and, more important, movingly.
All art may be autobiographical, but not all autobiography is art - sometimes the sight of Simon stripteasing in public seems more self-serving than self-searching. The portrayals of his uptight surrogates are always oddly flattering, like a well-couched man rewriting an intriguing case history for his analyst.
Yet "Jake's Women" is a comedy of moment, an intricately devised, bizarrely convincing portrait of the artist as a hall of mirrors. The development of Simon has, of course, been one of increasing honesty as veil after veil drops while he gives his unique double performance of self-exposure and self-sacrifice, suggesting not just Salome, but also John the Baptist.
Jake is a writer on the verge of breaking up with his second wife, Maggie. He loves her and she loves him. But intimacy eludes him - partly because, or at least that is what he tells himself, he cannot forget his first love, Julie, the young wife who died in a car crash, leaving him with a daughter, Molly, and impossible dreams.
Jake lives in Jake's world - a claustrophobic but gorgeously appointed closet in his SoHo loft, containing some books and a word processor. But it's not words alone that he processes - he writes, rewrites and edits his life.
He has turned introspection into a neurotic peep show peopled with the memories or fantasies of his women, so morbidly real they cast reflections in mirrors. How's that for Pirandello? How's that for a society that - as Simon notes - can swallow "Field of Dreams"? How's that for the psychology of parapsychology?
At times real women get mixed up with the chimera, offering fantastically funny results. Indeed the whole play, though neither contrived nor mechanical, is crankily funny. Even the one-liners have subtext, a gilded aptness: a psychiatrist accused of being "not an analyst but a mother with a diploma"; a self-described woman with "skin like lost luggage"; Jake, likening his problem to "putting together a jigsaw puzzle that has no picture on it."
The play has a flaw - Jake is neither as surprising nor interesting as he imagines himself, but then neither is Enrico in Pirandello's "Enrico Quattro." Writers must be permitted to fancy themselves.
Certainly the play is as beautifully and elegantly staged and acted as it is written. Santo Loquasto's designs look perfect, and by now the director Gene Saks is the final process of Simon's word processor, enabling the play to jump onstage with glossily well-rehearsed spontaneity.
Alan Alda, who evidently learned to chat up audiences from his recent London stint in "Our Town," is sensationally woebegone yet chic as Jake, and all the women are fine, including a glittering, lustrous Helen Shaver as the departing Maggie. There are two rambunctious comedy bits from Brenda Vaccaro as Jake's motherly sister and Joyce Van Patten as an equally motherly analyst. Yet the most touching scene comes from the imaginary encounter between the unreluctant ghosts of Jake's dead wife (Kate Burton) and his living daughter (Tracy Pollan).
Simon really does get better with keeping. Is his life becoming more exploitable, or are his word processes more subtly revealing? Whatever - "Jake's Women" are a wonderful crowd to spend a learning experience with.
It is reassuring to know that Neil Simon, battle-scarred veteran of the sexual wars, is as confused as the rest of us: what he still does not know about men and women could probably fill half a dozen plays.
"Jake's Women" is one of them. In this new Simon comedy at the Neil Simon Theater, a successful novelist, played by Alan Alda, wrestles with intimacy, guilt, trust, control and several other buzzwords that have been known to saw through modern American marriages, upper-middle-class, upper-middle-age division. While the effort is painfully sincere and the jargon only slightly out-of-date (the characters seem untouched as yet by "Iron John" and "Backlash"), the insights prove as canned as those in any daytime talk show about men who hate women who love men who hate women. But since Mr. Simon does know more about playwriting and comedy than most mortals, and since a uniformly charming cast is on hand to carry out his theatrical schemes, "Jake's Women" is not without its ancillary amusements.
The play is essentially a rueful footnote to "Chapter Two," Mr. Simon's breezy piece of 15 years ago in which a young widower bounces back from mourning with remarkable agility once he meets a new dream girl. The 53-year-old hero of "Jake's Women" also lost his first wife at an early age, but we meet him a decade later as he learns that his second wife, Maggie (Helen Shaver), is halfway out the door after eight years of marriage. What's gone wrong? Both Jake and Maggie stand accused of brief extramarital flings, of workaholism (he writes compulsively, she climbs "the corporate ladder"), of spending too much time apart (three to four months a year). Jake has the added handicap, endemic to writers on stage and screen, of preferring "creative pleasure" at his word processor to real pleasure. "Reality is a bummer," he says.
To cure these ailments, Mr. Simon sends Maggie away on a dramatically convenient six-month separation so that Jake can roam through memories of women he has known, with the hope that he might make an emotional breakthrough and learn to live life instead of merely observe it. As written, however, the hero's confessional monologue often seems to be a series of observations rather than a spontaneous experience, a manufactured stream of consciousness rather than an honest one. Jake is like the analysand who goes into a session with every revelation, even the most embarrassing anecdotes about Mom, carefully rehearsed and edited, lest any unexpected question or feeling actually emerge. For all his talk about pain and learning to "stand naked," he seems remote.
At least Mr. Simon does not misplace his sense of humor; some of the vignettes are quite funny. The boisterous Brenda Vaccaro, who barrels through as Jake's meddling and unattached sister, and Joyce Van Patten, as a therapist with dating woes of her own, are founts of wisecracks, all expertly delivered; one only wishes they had more to do. Mr. Alda also gets some delightful stand-up comedy riffs as Jake stage-manages the play's Pirandellian mixture of real, present-tense scenes, subjective flashbacks and wish-fulfilling fantasies.
The sadder incidents can also be effective self-contained playlets, reminiscent of the melancholy sketches Mr. Simon once shuffled into the comic decks of "Plaza Suite" and "California Suite." Ms. Shaver, a lovely actress with big, sad eyes and a forthright manner, has an affecting bit late in Act I in which she walks out a door a bubbly bride-to-be and re-enters moments later as a disillusioned wife eight years older. An imagined meeting between Jake's smart, college-age daughter and her long-dead mother is both sweet and feisty. Tracy Pollan's sharp intelligence keeps the daughter from lapsing into sentimentality, and Kate Burton, in what may be her long-awaited breakthrough performance, makes Jake's first wife, frozen in time at the age of 21, a magical incarnation of lost youth, the earthiest of ghosts.
Other episodes, whether comic or searching, do not come off so well, including a strained re-enactment of a name-dropping East Hampton cocktail party that opens the play very nervously, and a shrill altercation between Jake and a new fling (well acted by Talia Balsam) that is the major attempt to inject sustained laughter into a rudderless second act. The evening's supposedly cathartic denouement, which features the broadcast of recorded inner voices ("from some deep place I've never been before," says Jake) and the recitation of psychobabble to the accompaniment of easy-listening music, can only be described as bizarre. It's a new-age version of a Senor Wences comedy routine.
Those interludes most notably excepted, Gene Saks has directed "Jake's Women" in a refreshingly human key rather than with the hard-sell theatrics that begged for applause at the end of nearly every speech and scene of "Lost in Yonkers." The director has been less successful at commissioning an inviting set from Santo Loquasto. A brilliant designer of period Americana ("Lost in Yonkers" included), Mr. Loquasto gives Jake a SoHo apartment that resembles a duplex suite in a modern chain hotel and surrounds it with brick catacombs and staircases suggesting that the abstract recesses of Jake's psyche resemble an abandoned factory.
It is up to Mr. Alda to set the evening's tone and hold its focus, and he does both jobs most effectively. While there will be few surprises in his performance for devotees of "M*A*S*H," his stage skills have in no way atrophied since his Broadway heyday in the 1960's. Addressing the audience almost continuously, Jake could easily wear out a star's stamina and welcome, but Mr. Alda carries his duties lightly, practicing deft comic timing and displaying an old-shoe warmth and sensitivity that never become sanctimonious.
Mr. Simon is not sanctimonious, either, but he does come across as naive. By the end of "Jake's Women," he has posited that battling married couples can cure what ails them by giving each other some space, cutting back on their workloads, getting in touch with their feelings and banishing their childhood demons by fiat. Is it all that easy, or is Mr. Simon merely desperate for a happy ending? Jake's simple, abrupt resolution of this play's deadlocked marital war recalls Senator George Aiken's memorable prescription for getting the United States out of Vietnam: declare victory and send everyone home.