NEW YORK — JAKE'S WOMEN Comedy by Neil Simon. Directed by Gene Saks. Starring Alan Alda. At the Neil Simon Theatre.
COMIC fantasy mingles with fantastic comedy in "Jake's Women" as its bemused hero tries to "put together a jigsaw puzzle that has no picture in it." Meanwhile, playwright Neil Simon creates vivid individual portraits of the women in question.
The new play opens as Jake (Alan Alda) and wife Maggie (Helen Shaver) are facing a crisis and a crossroads. After eight years of marriage, Maggie has decided to leave Jake for six months; she thinks the temporary separation may give her husband time to sort himself out, particularly with respect to the several previous women in his life. The scene of subsequent conversations is Jake's Soho apartment and "in his mind." The combined actual and imaginary settings free Mr. Simon (and Jake) for monologue and dialogue flights. The play also asks philosophical questions such as: "Is creative pleasure better than real pleasure?"
The fact that Jake is writing their dialogue doesn't prevent the women from expressing assorted viewpoints, frequently in conflict with their introspective author. Whoever is speaking, he takes their words right out of his mouth. First comes Karen (Brenda Vaccaro), Jake's sympathetic but by no means uncritical sibling. In sisterly fashion, she tries to remind Jake of the good years he and wife Maggie have had. But restless Maggie is an on-the-go career person moving up the corporate ladder. She explains to Jake that she can't stop running and that she won't be good for anything until she comes to rest. Their relationship is going to be on hold for the next six months.
Meanwhile, Jake revisits the near and distant past in imagination and writes (or rewrites) scenes involving the previous women in his life. Chief among them are first wife Julie (Kate Burton), who died 19 years previously and who tries objectively to help Jake analyze what happened to their relationship. The couple's lovely daughter Molly now reappears both as a 12-year-old (Genia Michaela) and a grown woman (Tracy Pollan).
Finally, there is Sheila (Talia Balsam), who will be the latest woman in the succession - if she can stand the ordeal and stay the course. Sheila is involved in the comic anti-climax that highlights "Jake's Women" - a sort of "Blithe Spirit" scene in which Sheila totally misinterprets the harangue directed by Jake at an unseen Maggie.
Amusingly devised by Simon, "Jake's Women" has been deftly staged by his veteran collaborator, Gene Saks. As participant-observer, the personable Mr. Alda brings an easy brio to his role. The women are all vividly portrayed and distinctively individualized. Ms. Shaver's Maggie is the determined careerist, the latest version of the new woman that began with Bernard Shaw. Santo Loquasto has designed a setting that can encompass Jake's comfortable apartment and ascend to the platforms that surmount it.