'Jake's Women' blurs lines between imagination and reality

In Neil Simon's 1992 semi-autobiographical, semi-serious comedy, "Jake's Women," the audience is invited into famous novelist Jake's New York apartment to watch him struggle with his relationships with seven women. Last weekend, director Charles Maloney and a top-notch cast opened 2nd Star's 2010-2011 season with the play.

In his program notes, Maloney describes the story as being about "a playwright-observer who loses himself in his god-like manipulation of his script world, forgoing participation in his own life and beginning to live vicariously in his own wish-fulfilling fantasies."

Although imaginary characters playing their roles on multiple reality levels is not the typical Simon play, many of his hallmarks are still evident here, including masterful one-liners, glib psychoanalysis references, and simultaneously funny and serious lines delivered by a self-absorbed and self-effacing protagonist.

Although called "Jake's Women," this play is about Jake, who is at the center of everything — a narcissist who both avoids and desires intimacies and is comfortable in his upscale Manhattan apartment.

At 53, Jake is obsessed with his first wife, Julie, conjuring her up at age 21 and later at 35 — her age when she died in a car accident.

He also conjures up other women, including his daughter, Molly, as both a 12-year-old girl and a 21-year-old college student; his taunting psychotherapist, Edith; and his boisterous sister, Karen. Even Jake's mother is resurrected and briefly heard.

The only women who are sometimes actually in Jake's apartment are his second wife, Maggie, and his bewildered occasional date, Sheila.

In 2nd Star's production, veteran actor Jose de la Mar stars in the demanding role of Jake, required to be on stage continuously, relating to the real and imaginary women in his life and communicating emotions of various shades and dimensions. De la Mar's Jake also shares jokes directly with the audience in asides that remove the theater's fourth wall.

Sixteen-year-old high school junior Natalia Esteve brings Jake's late wife to life at two ages. First, she is a 21-year-old discovering love. Later, Jake brings her back at an age younger than their daughter's current age, a move that sparks her resentment.

As adult daughter Molly, Lauren Fox expresses an interesting mix of emotions, initially needing to know her mother, then being reluctant to reach out to this young woman she barely remembers, while still exhibiting love for her father.

As current wife Maggie, Maribeth Vogel Eckenrode shows confusion over Jake's inability to commit fully to their marriage because of his lingering attachment to Julie. She is annoyed by his need to control her, and exhibits real zest while sparring with Jake, creating a multi-dimensional portrayal of the "real" Maggie and the figment created by Jake.

Talented 13-year-old Vivian Wingard plays 13-year-old Molly, holding her own with this stellar cast.

Heidi Toll seems destined to play Jake's sister Karen, becoming a boisterous, insecure, lively presence who is always supportive of her family.

As Jake's psychiatrist Edith, Adele Degnan projects a solid authoritarian image while proving to be Jake's match, trading well-timed barbs.

Janice Coffey also proves a skilled comedienne as sometime-date Sheila, anxious to please, despite mixed emotions as she tries to fit whatever role Jake wants her to play. On opening night, Coffey garnered the most laughs in a scene where Maggie stands behind Sheila and mimics her every move, while Sheila is unaware of Maggie's presence.

Jane Wingard does her usual multitasking, serving as producer, costume coordinator and set designer.

If you go

"Jake's Women" continues at Bowie Playhouse at 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday and at 3 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are $20 general admission, $17 for seniors ages 60 and older and full-time students. Call 410-757-5700.

Season subscriptions are also available and include "Jake's Women"; a musical spoof on Agatha Christie mysteries in "Something's Afoot" from Nov. 5 to Dec. 5; a play about an irascible Scotsman and a proper Englishwoman who become traveling companions in "Be My Baby" from March 11 to 26; and a June musical to be announced later. Information: 2ndstarproductions.com.

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