Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Also see Richard's review of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
There are, by my count, four or five good laughs, and a wonderful scene two hours into it, where Mr. Simon himself passes the "Bechdel test" with flying colors (a not inconsiderable feat for an old guy writing in 1992). Otherwise, the show has not aged well. There are references to movies of the 1970s and '80s, including Ghostbusters, The Elephant Man, the Godfather trilogy, and Jaws (the first one). And, of course, lots of references to the challenges (and occasional benefits) of living in New York City. And lots and lots of references to what Mr. Simon apparently learned in decades of therapy. The self-referential humor of someone very much like Neil Simon suffuses the entire 150 minutes, except for the intermission, of course. But since we don't live under the glow of his blazing star any longer, it's all a bit like watching a 35-year-old video of a Bob Hope Christmas special. Except this comic can only riff on himself.
You can just cut-and-paste every nice thing I've ever said about Jennifer Theby Quinn in here, for her great work as Maggie, Jake's second wife: genius; brilliant; snappy dresser, not counting the first dress, which is supposed to be awful, from costumer Michelle Siler. But I worry that the same intense character development, the meticulous emotional design Ms. Theby Quinn always brings to the stage, somehow makes things worse in Jake's Women. We understand that Mr. Simon wanted to be taken more seriously in his later years, but maybe the gravitas this actress brings (along with the many shimmering comic highlights) makes the break-up scene too horrific. Although I will say her Midwestern naïveté gives her leading man a great jumping off point for his exasperating wealth of irony. Still, Mr. Cummings' machinations, to get her back afterward, reminded me of John Cassavetes' Scenes from a Marriage (1973), in which Gena Rowlands is so nuts that she only makes things worse while trying to make them better. Nervous laughter ensues.
Does that mean I'm changing my mind and that it is actually a stealthy, pensive drama, from the author of The Odd Couple and Brighton Beach Memoirs? It's pensive, I'll give you that. It's got "pensive" to burn. But Neil Simon overthrew the nation a long ago, changing many of us into stand-up comedians in our daily lives. We already think in the same comic beats as Jake, and here we're drawn into his (eventually) squealing feedback-loop of neuroticism in this tragicomedy. That's when his comic pacing, a set-up/punch-line mechanism welded into our thinking, becomes a nightmarish hellscape for us all.
That said ... Mindy Shaw is breathtakingly good as the modest outsider, Sheila, who develops an astringent sort of panic just as Jake is really losing his mind. And Marisa Puller is a dream come true as Jake's first wife, Julie. (Although both Julie and Maggie are technically "manic pixie dream girls.") Fine work as well, from Sharon Hunter as Jake's sister, and Jennie Brick as his therapist. And from Amelie Lock and Carly Uding, as his daughter at different ages.
Jake's Women runs through November 21, 2021, at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center, 210 East Monroe Ave., Kirkwood MO. Bring a mask and a vaccination card. For more information visit www.moonstonetheatrecompany.com.
Jake: Jeff Cumming*
Maggie: Jennifer Theby Quinn*
Karen: Sharon Hunter*
Edith: Jennie Brick*
Young Molly: Amelie Lock
Older Molly: Carly Uding
Julie: Marisa Puller
Sheila: Mindy Shaw
* Denotes Member, Actors Equity Association