By James E. Trainor III
Cedar Rapids - Jake (Philip Schramp) loves women, and women love Jake. And why not? He's witty, charming, and sexy. They even tell him so. Of course, then mainly tell him so when he's having imaginary conversations with them in his own head, but so what? Everyone needs a hobby.
Jake's Women is Neil Simon's comedy about a neurotic writer who can't deal with the women in his life on their own terms. TCR's production, directed by Scott Humeston, opens in the Grandon Studio this weekend. With a sharp look, masterful direction, and a hilarious cast, the show strikes a good balance between relentless comedy and heartfelt reflection.
The central device of Jake's Women is that Jake can summon imaginary versions of real women to the stage whenever he wants them. Through this we are introduced to the character of Maggie (Heather Akers) twice; first bubbly, nervous, and cautiously playful, on the night they met, then quiet, desperate yet reserved, eight years into their struggling marriage. Akers is very effective at both building this character and making the device of switching the age and the circumstances from scene to scene very believable. A lot more has gone into the difference between younger Maggie and older Maggie than a simple costume change; we see both the growth in confidence and the years of emotional frustration in Akers' physical work and in the way she responds to Schramp. Early Maggie is delightful, reveling in the humor and absurdity of the piece. Later Maggie is fragile yet strong; the emotional core of the piece, standing up for herself amidst a stream of silliness. Akers' range is what makes this show really work; she can play the unbridled goofiness of one moment and be equally ready for the uncomfortable drama of the next.
There are a number of other characters Jake brings on stage as he comes to terms with his separation with Maggie. His daughter, Molly, of course, both at 12 (Lily Palmersheim) and 21 (Katie Vogel), tries to cheer him up. His sister, Karen (Susan Scharnau) and his therapist, Edith (Jennifer Boettger) both show up, in turn and together, to pick apart his psyche. These two are quite funny and this is where a lot of the manic energy of the piece comes from. Between Boettger's stern sarcasm and Scharnau's relentless sibling rivalry, these scene give a new meaning to the phrase "overactive imagination." Last but certainly not least, Jake can't let go of the memory of his first wife, Julie (Angela Billman). Billman also does a great job realizing the age range; she prances on the scene a mooning 21, a thing of fleeting nostalgia; by the end of the play she is a more centered and mature 35. Both Julies are a delight, in their own way, and the gentle love she shares with Jake and with Molly is really touching.
Schramp himself is first and foremost an excellent scene partner. He's very believable as brother, or father, or husband, and he's always right there with the other person, really listening and giving her a lot to work with. He's very effective with the monologues, particularly in Act Two, where the script itself tends to drag a bit. He's very comfortable playing the crowd and he finds the humor in the backstory, bringing the character to life in a really warm way. He also gets the character growth, and the Jake we meet at the beginning of the show is not the same Jake that bows at the end. He's not necessarily emotionally mature, but he has made progress.
A lot is made of "emotional distance" in Jake's Women, and Humeston's staging makes this metaphor really clear. During the first conversation about separating, one is struck by the rather large distance between Jake and Maggie; the setup both works well for sightlines and drives home how uncomfortable they are sharing the same space. Much of the piece is played upstage, but both Maggie and Julie are given some really powerful exits and entrances at the downstage corners. It's a great way to get a confrontation going on a diagonal, making use of the Grandon's strengths. Humeston nails this technique. The use of a rolling office chair also adds some dynamic energy to the staging choices.
Finally, the pacing of the piece is very tight, which keeps the laughter in the air and keeps what is admittedly a somewhat padded script moving right along. Though the second act has a few moments where it feels like it's retreading, because the text itself tends to hiccup a bit, there's always a sweet moment or a hilarious bit right around the corner. And the first act is simply a blast. It's impressive how efficient both director and cast are, leaving very little dead space, nailing the punchlines and moving right on to the next thing. Time flies when you're having fun, and TCR's Jake's Women is certainly fun.
Jake's Women is a clever play with a fun premise that plays as well today as it did thirty years ago. Go to the Grandon and see for yourself how funny and insightful this company can be. And don't worry; you don't have to buy extra tickets for the voices in your head.
Jake's Women runs through November 24, with Thursday, Friday, and Saturday performances at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday performances at 2:30 p.m. Tickets available here.