Review: 'Jake's Women' by Neil Simon

Now onstage at Scarborough Village Theatre and presented by the Scarborough Theatre Guild

Photo of Will van der Zyl as Jake by Julie Adams Photography

Joe Szekeres

(Updated September 12)

A good choice for Scarborough Theatre Guild to stage Neil Simon’s ‘Jake’s Women’. It certainly spoke to me given the Covid times in which we still find ourselves and the fractured relationships resulting from this uncertainty. But some choices made puzzled me.

Some things to applaud the Guild. It was refreshing to see new faces on the stage that I haven’t seen before so thank you for that.

I hadn’t realized how appropriate Neil Simon’s ‘Jake’s Women’ is for audiences given these challenging Covid times, and I applaud the Guild for its choice to stage the production as audiences return to the theatre.

Just like the central character Jake finds himself in fractured relationships in his mind with the women in his life and wondering if he will be able to repair them, Covid and all its issues have certainly tested our relationship with others. If Jake and his current wife, Maggie, can try to repair their marriage, let’s hope that our world can heal from all the turmoil in which we now find ourselves.

It is New York in the 1990s. Jake (Will van der Zyl) is a successful New York writer suffering from psychoses in his relationships with the women in his life. He faces a marital crisis with his current wife, Maggie (Marisa King) by daydreaming and talking with the women from his life. There is his first wife Julie (Carling Tedesco) whom he adored and with whom he had a daughter Molly. Jake has conversations in his mind with the young Molly (Abby Hamilton-Diabo) and the older Molly (Kaitlyn Coulter). Julie was killed years earlier in an accident.

We also meet Jake’s bossy, controlling sister, Karen (Cindy Hirschberg-Schon), and his very openly opinionated analyst, Edith (Patricia Byrne). Jake’s current wife, successful corporate climber Maggie (Marisa King) has had an affair with another man and there is talk of her leaving Jake. Finally, we also meet Sheila (Julie Jarrett) a possible third wife for Jake, but a bit of a bubblehead. Still, Sheila wants a relationship with Jake, but she faces so many challenges and headaches with his indecisiveness.

Director Larry Westlake has pared back a full-scale set and, instead, opted for certain key props and allows for the grandness of the space to take place within the audience’s minds. I’m all for allowing audiences to do that, but there were some design elements that confused me. I don’t think a man would have a chaise lounge/settee as the focal point within his living space – perhaps a comfortable-looking worn leather couch instead? I was also confused about the director’s chair and its placement. Perhaps some type of wing-tipped chair instead? Jake is also in the midst of writing his next book, and I didn' t see any indication of that. Perhaps a few more items to indicate we are in the home of a writer would be beneficial.

Downstage is the present and upstage on risers become the moments where Jake speaks to the women in the past; however, what became confusing to me are the moments where the women move downstage from the past into the present while all in Jake’s mind. I had some challenges in deciding which of the women were being spoken to in the past and which were the ones Jake invites into the present within his mind. The lighting cues here would need to be a tad sharper.

Andra Bradish’s colourful costumes are strongly reminiscent of the 1990s. Alan Maynes’ selection of pre-show music nicely reflected the theme of connection we have with each other. A couple of sound cues were mistimed momentarily so, hopefully, that can be rectified for future performances. As well, the voices Jake hears in the second act sound rather tinny and I couldn’t hear clearly what was being said.

Director Larry Westlake wrote in his Director’s Note: ‘Agony is the root of comedy’ and this is an extremely important vision to notice and incorporate in Simon’s works. The key, nevertheless, is to imbue the production with agony without it ever going over the top and becoming so unbelievably campy that audiences would simply tune out and stop believing in the moment.

Westlake would have had to maintain not necessarily a tightly reined control but never allow his actors to become histrionic to veer so out of control that it becomes laughable.

He accomplished what he set out to do. An example of this as proof occurs where in Act 2 Maggie (who is in Jake’s mind) satirically imitates and mimics Sheila’s speech and body language in the present as she and Jack are having an extremely heated conversation about their relationship.

As Jake, Will van der Zyl has the daunting task of never leaving the stage for the most part (except for a scripted bathroom break in Act 2). Van der Zyl believably remains completely focused and in the moment with each of the women. There was a moment in Act 2 where I thought fatigue might have been setting in for him, but that’s understandable since he and the entire cast and crew have just come off the opening week. He logically builds Jake’s many qualities of petulance, anxiety, frustration, woes, ambition, and desires without ever upstaging the women in his conversations with them.

In fact, on the second performance night I attended, there were some bona fide slices of real-life human connection that were subtly captured and made me smile because what I just saw was truly real. This occurred near the end of Act One where Jake sits with the younger and older Molly on the bench. To me, there just appeared to be this inherent sense where the three of them were zoned into the moment, listening and responding in a way that parents and children do with each other. So good to watch that scene as it became an effective image in my mind just before the intermission.

The women offer securely grounded performances for the most part. As Julie, Jake’s first wife who was killed in an accident, Carling Tedesco’s supposed conversation with their older daughter Molly in the present was very touching. As younger and older Molly, Abby Hamilton-Diabo and Kaitlyn Coulter intently listened and realistically responded to comments directed at them. Kaitlyn’s scene with Tedesco was very touching. As Sheila in the present, Julie Jarrett sharply captured the humour of the moment in the dance she does with Maggie.

As Jake’s sister Karen and analyst Edith, I felt there was a forced performance delivery from Cindy Hirschberg-Schon and Patricia Byrne. Hopefully, as performances continue, these ladies can settle into the characters and allow the words and context of the moment to speak for themselves.

Marisa King has a formidable task ahead in revealing Maggie’s complete character arc in seeing a woman’s angst and agony in not being heard to hopefully becoming an individual who can communicate to her husband how important it is they both listen, hear and understand in their relationship with each other.

(Spoiler alert) King and van der Zyl securely do just this at the end of the production and I was left with the feeling that yes both Jake and Maggie will do just what it takes to make the relationship work.

Running Time approximately 2 hours and 40 minutes with one intermission.

‘Jake’s Women’ runs September 15, 16, 17, 22 and 23 at 8 p.m. AND September 18 and 24 at 2 pm at Scarborough Village Theatre, 3600 Kingston Road, Scarborough. For tickets, call the Box Office (416) 267-9292 or online www.theatrescarborough.com

Jake’s Women by Neil Simon
Directed by Larry Westlake
Co-Producers: Alison Overington and Linda Brent
Stage Manager: Heather Hyslop/ Assistant Stage Manager: Teresa Bakke
Set Designer: Larry Westlake
Costumes: Andra Bradish
Props: Alison Overington
Lighting Designer: Jennifer Bakker
Makeup/Hair: Gloria King
Sound Design and Operation: Alan Maynes

Cast: Will van der Zyl, Marisa King, Cindy Hirschberg-Schon, Patricia Byrne, Abby Hamilton-Diabo, Kaitlyn Coulter, Carling Tedesco, Julie Jarrett

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