Monarch Theatre Troupe’s artistic directors Jean and Bill Brenner christened their second season premiere in Bucks County with the Neil Simon less perennial favorite, JAKE’S WOMEN, April 7 through 16, at Rolling Hills Elementary School in Holland, Pa. The husband-wife veteran directors parlayed their considerable production chops into a pleaser that easily maneuvers through what could otherwise seem a confusing story line.
Although JAKE’S WOMEN never made it to Broadway due to script re-writes and less-than-glowing reviews, community theater groups enjoy adopting this play with its opportunity for many women of various ages to play opposite the sole male protagonist. With Jean Brenner at the helm, however, the nuances of the present and the past, those in the lead character’s memory versus physical reality, caringly transitions scenes in the two-act comedy, so that patrons new to this script are still able to comfortably follow the plot without missing the opportunity to contribute to the emotional rollercoaster of laughter and tears.
JAKE’S WOMEN, scripted by Neil Simon, America’s most successful playwright, explores the comic and moving study of successful but narcissistic fiction novelist Jake, who, as he approaches a mid-life crisis and writer’s block (not an ideal combination), faces separation from his second wife, Maggie. Loss is not new to Jake, who lost his young, first wife in a tragic auto accident, leaving him to raise their only daughter, Molly. Emotionally crippled with a bad case of adolescence, the now struggling 50-something widow and possibly future divorcee forays into a series of imaginary encounters with the significant females in his life in an attempt to grow-up.
Jake’s got his hands full, imaginary or otherwise, with his two wives, the younger and now grown daughter, his boisterous (and colorfully attired) sister and unsupportive, aggressive analyst.
It is his neuroses and “lack of intimacy”, not his talent for attracting women, which mandate his choices (and repetitive failures) in life. Ironically, in the end, it is the women in his past who teach him how to give and love unconditionally, instead of take and destroy. It is never too late to teach an old dog new tricks.
Jake’s monologues (crafted by the playwright,) were genius in order to create “the fullest, richest character in the play, because the audience knows things I never thought I would reveal about Jake – and possibly myself,” Simon once said. Thus, Simon is “on-the-record” of creating Jake as a semi-autobiographical character, allowing all of us the opportunity to peer in through the rear window of his psyche and personal life.
Jake, played by Tom Dinardo of Northeast Philadelphia, knew what he was doing on the stage. His theater resume reads like a “Who’s Who” compendium of Neil Simon plays. Dinardo has sage comedic timing. If it is merely talent or the ability to take good direction, he gets it. Dinardo paused where it was needed and let certain laugh lines breathe, giving the audience time to appreciatively respond. He was equally gracious to his co-stars, knowing when to move into the light and step back for the ladies who shared the stage with him to bask in the glow of their key lines and actions.
In a interview by James Lipton, The Art of Theater No. 10, published in The Paris Review, Winter 1992, Simon said that writer’s often look like they are looking off at “nothing,” when they are actually visualizing their thoughts. It was occasionally distracting when Dinardo looked out over the audience, then dropped his glance directly toward an audience member. Perhaps, breaking “the fourth wall” was intentional or perhaps inadvertent? It was slightly distracting. As it did not occur every moment the actor faced the audience, I am not sure, but Dinardo could have committed to one choice or another.
Laura Scotti of Richboro plays Jake’s current wife, Maggie – a beautiful, practical, career-person, unfulfilled with her self-absorbed husband. Maggie tells Jake that he illustrates a “lack of intimacy.” She has tried, but can’t get through to her unavailable spouse. Scotti, who starred as “Passionella,” part of Monarch Theatre Troupe’s first season in 2010 of “The Apple Tree,” once again proves that she can juggle comedy and drama, as Maggie surprises Jake with a confession that she had an affair. People in the audience were visibly squirming when the confession surfaced and Dinardo’s response forced a few to wipe away a sniffle.
Bonnie Kapenstein of Philadelphia plays Jake’s sister, Karen. Kapenstein emerges as an acerbic, sharp-tongued whip, ready to go toe-to-toe with her frustrating brother. Kapenstein’s knack for cynicism is punched perfectly and working with Annie Jackson on costumes, had folks giggling on her entrances. Kapenstein has performed in 62 productions and 14 theater companies throughout the Delaware Valley and New Jersey.
Fran Kane of Yardley, plays Edith, Jake’s outrageous therapist who is both a voice of reason and very annoying. Kane, whom we have seen as Ouiser in “Steel Magnolias” and Ethel Banks in “Barefoot in the Park,” both at Newtown Arts Company, and Dotty/Mrs. Clackett in “Noises Off” at Playmasters, has “to extreme without going overboard” to a science.
Annie Jackson of South Philadelphia plays Jake’s first wife, Julie. Jackson, who has appeared in several independent films, as well as serves as a host and model on QVC, shines in this poignant role. Her portrayal of the dead wife and mother is special and unexpected. This actress is a natural and we hope to see more of Ms. Jackson in the future. We did hear the pin drop in the scene between her and their daughter, Molly. Tissues…check.
Elaina Faust of Washington Crossing and Brianna Tillo of Bristol, respectively play Jake and Julie’s young, then grown daughter. Faust is darling, without being fussy, as what Jake’s perceives is a perfect, non-problematic child.
Tillo as the college-aged Molly nails her scenes, most memorably her gifted moment-in-time with her mother whose ill-fated death is a missed chance for a strong mother-daughter bond now made good. She has performed at the Showboat in Atlantic City in “Tony N Tina’s Wedding,” at Citizens Bank Park with the Phillies and recently starred in an independent film.
Barbara Kind Berman of Holland, portrays girlfriend, Sheila. Kind Berman has spent the past 15 years playing many roles with Ohev Shalom Players including Golde in “Fiddler on the Roof,” Narrator in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” and Mrs. Gibbs in “Our Town.”
All in all, the ensemble worked well together. The balance was there. There were no divas that could have easily tethered the balance of the seamless performances.
Most patrons understand that Jake is interjecting his own thoughts and scripted words through the vocal chords of the real or conjured women in his world, but there is also a glimmer of hope that Jake is inadvertently giving these ladies their own voice. As the play progressed, it was as if each woman attempts to override his self-scripted dialogues, to provide attention to their own needs. Take care of a woman and she will take care of you, they say. It reminds you of that moment in the movie “Moonstruck,” when Cher’s character Loretta Castorini desperate for the man she loves, slaps Nicholas Cage’s character Johnny Cammarari across the face and shouts “Snap out of it!” Monarch Theatre Troupe’s production of JAKE’S WOMEN got our attention.
by Neil Simon
Directed by Jean Brenner
April 7 – 16, 2011
Monarch Theatre Troupe
Rolling Hills Elementary School
340 Middle Holland Rd.
Holland PA 18966