by Frank Thompson
Hello, friends! Happy to be back in the saddle, following a nasty couple of weeks under the weather. (Drink your juice, get a flu shot, and dress warmly!) My first review of 2019 requires that I play “Full Disclosure” (see The Addams Family: The Musical for the reference.) I am a frequent director with Workshop Theatre, and serve as Vice-President of the Board of Trustees. I do my best to remain completely objective, but feel it only ethical to establish the relationship up-front. That said, let’s talk about the show.
Jake’s Women, the first official production in Workshop’s new “home” at Columbia College’s Cottingham Theatre kicks off a new era, a new venue, and a new optimism for all involved. Last season saw “guest appearances” at Cottingham, with a show-by-show arrangement. Without revealing anything classified, I can say that Workshop and Cottingham have come to a more substantial relationship. With a full-sized, legitimate theatre space, and the amenities and advantages that come with it, Workshop is poised to re-establish its position as one of Columbia’s premiere performing houses. I say this in my capacity as a critic, not as Workshop “family,” but the venerable theatre group seems strongly poised to re-capture the glory days of Bull Street. Special props to Executive Director, Jeni Decamp McCaughn, for steering the ship through a few stormy years, yet holding a steady hand at the helm, with husband Dean McCaughan dedicating countless hours to helping his wife weather the storm, and a mostly-volunteer staff and crew devoting their talents to resurrect Workshop’s past identity. We’re straying into promotional territory, so I will shift my focus to the show, not the organization.
“With a full-sized, legitimate theatre space, and the amenities and advantages that come with it, Workshop is poised to re-establish its position as one of Columbia’s premiere performing houses.”
Jake’s Women tells the story of a widowed and remarried man, Jake, who is struggling with the devastating loss of a beloved spouse, attempting to re-build his life by dating and falling in love with Maggie, his second wife. Maggie is loving, pretty, and embrace’s Jake’s daughter with sincere affection. Throughout the performance, the all-female cast (minus Jake) remain far upstage, watching, ignoring, and occasionally reacting to his experiences. While hilarious, Jake’s Women jumps between reality, (possible) dreams, and manages to work in a couple of tear-jerking moments internal to the hilarity. The plot is somewhat meta-on-meta, and it takes a few minutes to understand the structure and symbolism of the ever-present women in his literal and figurative background.
Another confession: I am not a huge Neil Simon fan, with the exceptions of Barefoot In The Park and Murder By Death, a mid-70s TV film that BEGS for a stage adaptation. Director David Britt is, however, a Simon aficionado, and his love of the material shines through in every scene.
Without dropping spoilers, I can say that Jake encounters various women in his life, including his daughter, his shrink, his deceased ex-wife, and his potential new wife, should he and Maggie divorce. Through a series of flashbacks, we meet ex-wife Julie, who hasn’t let death remove her from the realm of the living.
If this sounds Quentin Tarantino-esque, that’s because it is. Realities and perspective frequently swap places, and, (again, no spoilers) and it takes a few minutes to understand the conceit. For anyone who knows Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, Simon’s Jake’s Women provides a similar feeling of “eureka!” when the structure becomes obvious. Trust me, you’ll have a difficult time not shouting “ah-ha!” when things become clear.
“If this sounds Quentin Tarantino-esque, that’s because it is.”
Re the cast, Director Britt has assembled an A-plus group of performers. In the eponymous role, and as the sole male perspective, newcomer Damian Garrod displays a level of skill that will likely place him at the forefront of casting calls, should he continue in the Columbia theatre community. Jake is clueless and mildly chauvinist, but tries to be a genuinely nice guy, and Garrod nails the role. In my notes, I wrote “Young George Clooney,” “Jimmy Stewart,” “Joey Tribbiani,” (Friends) “Charlie Brown,” and “Mark Hamill in Star Wars.” Garrod channels these, and other actors/characters with seeming effortlessness , never allowing himself to slide into caricature, or shatter the illusion of his own interpretation of the world surrounding him.
As Maggie, Jake’s second wife, Lou Boeschen shines while demonstrating dramatic acting skills that I had never before seen, knowing Lou from “big, happy, musicals.” While she is certainly adept at roles in shows such as Anything Goes and The Marvelous Wonderettes, she also has the chops to believably portray a hopeful but world-weary Maggie. I was quite impressed with this new discovery from someone whose musical talent I have always admired.
The rest of the cast is uniformly strong, featuring Dee Renko as Jake’s funky-meets-hip sister, Karen, who truly wants the best for her brother. H. Loretta Brown provides a sympathetic gravitas as psychiatrist Edith, while Riley Campbell and Raelyn O’Briant share the role of Jake’s daughter, Molly, with Campbell taking the role as a young girl, and O’Briant picking up as the older Molly. As the deceased Julie, Jennifer Lucas O’Briant straddles the line between dream/hallucination and corporeal presence. Rounding out the cast is Melissa Frierson as Sheila, the new girlfriend we meet in act two. Each of the above presents a fully-developed, serious, yet entertaining character in Jake’s life. There’s not a weak link in this ensemble cast, which makes it a pleasure to enjoy.
The set, designed by director Britt, is minimalist without seeming skimpy, and fits the shifting times, perspectives, and realities of the story. Alexis Doktor’s Costume Design perfectly fits both the characters and period. Stage Manager Caleb Carson does an excellent job of keeping the show moving. Though Jake’s Women is almost two hours long, counting the interval, I was shocked when each act ended. Britt has clearly emphasized pace, which is always a good idea with Neil Simon. Dean McCaughan, as always, runs a tight sound/light board, and Columbia College’s Patrick Faulds delivers an effective and creative lighting design, which moves the show along while enhancing specific moments.
Jake’s Women is not the most well-known of Simon’s work, but it is one of the most engaging and entertaining shows I’ve seen in some time. The entire cast is onstage for the full evening, with the actors playing semi-detatched, yet still-aware figures in Jake’s psyche.
As for the drawbacks, they are few. A couple of actors need to project more, which shouldn’t be difficult, and (as much as I love minimalism,) I’m ready to see the newly–rebranded Workshop bring us a fully-realized set. The script, while clever and enjoyable, is benignly surreal. Fans of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction will enjoy a Tarantino-esque gradual reveal, which lets us know that various time periods and flashback sequences prevent approaching the work as a linear timeline. It takes a few moments to catch onto the conceit. If you’re confused at first, just give it a few minutes.
Jake’s Women is a bit of a mind-bender, and (quite honestly) not quite up there with Simon’s absolute best, but it’s a charming, enjoyable show, performed by a talented cast. There are, as the saying goes, worse ways to spend an evening. It didn’t change my life, but I laughed, I cried, and I had one hell of a good time. Jake’s Women runs Thursday-Sunday, so don’t miss your chance to see this hilarious, heart-warming, and occasionally tear-jerking “sleeper” show by the master of urban comedy.
On a final note, I couldn’t suppress a guffaw when the twenty-something “ghost” of Julie, misunderstanding the timeline, shouts at Jake with “EEEEW! You’re 48 and I SLEPT with you last night?”
I will be 49 in June. Ouch.
Make sure your weekend plans include Jake’s Women. It’s a lighthearted show that has moments of sincere pathos and seriousness, and a lesser-known work by a master of American comedy. You’ll be glad to have “discovered” it, and have a delightful time laughing at the mirror-image of life that Simon artfully crafts.
Jake’s Women continues its run Thursday-Sunday at Collingwood Theatre, Columbia College. Tickets can be reserved by ringing the Box Office on (803) 799. 6551, or by visiting WorkshopTheatre.com