The phrase "glorified high school" came to mind when I saw Jake's Women - the Neil Simon comedy that opened last week at Scott Community College - and that's not meant as an insult. Rather, it's a commentary on the limited space and resources the SCC theatre department has to work with, which are a mere step up from those available to local high-school drama departments. Performances are held in the auditorium of the Student Life Center on a proscenium stage fringed by red curtains and flanked by American flags on eagle-topped poles; a rudimentary sound system hangs overhead, beside a single row of lights. (I expected, at any moment, to see Sam the Eagle stride into a scene and deliver a political speech.) Admittedly, the visuals were a bit of a sleep-inducer, but director Steve Flanigin's casting choices kept me awake.
The plot follows Jake (Patrick Joslyn), a writer in New York who "uses people like Kleenex" and can't keep his mind from wandering back to the fiction he's writing. He's recently developed a bad habit of summoning fictional versions of V.I.P. females, both living and dead, into his apartment to offer their advice about his impending divorce with his wife, Maggie (Riley Hantz). These opinionated spirits include : Jake's therapist, Edith (Bethany Jones); his sister, Karen (Nichole Gill); his daughter, Molly, seen at ages 12 (Megan Svoboda) and 21 (Danielle Coffin); his deceased first wife, Julie (Nicki Huber); and Maggie herself. The funny thing about these characters is that Jake (occasionally) has complete control over what they say, do, and even wear, but that doesn't mean the women like being bossed around. When Jake makes Maggie compliment him and toss her hair like a movie star, she complains; when Karen wears ugly cardigans and stinky perfume, she claims that she would've chosen neither for herself.
As the women continue to help and hinder Jake throughout the second act, he becomes more and more neurotic, claiming that he can't distinguish the life he writes about from the one he's supposed to be living. This was the part of the script that I found the most personally annoying, because for as many times as writers are portrayed in movies and on stage as "crazy," one would think the lot of us should be locked up in an institution that serves Jell-O for every meal.
Once Jake's neuroses began to spin out of control, Flanigin needed to reign in Joslyn's acting, as his wild gesturing, continual pacing across the stage, and high-pitched voice - all meant to be humorous - were instead off-putting. But Joslyn handled other, earlier moments with more finesse, such as his banter with Edith, and the real-world telephone conversations he engaged in while also conversing with a figment in his apartment. He brought a certain affability to his characterization, which made him fun to watch, and he usually looked like he was having fun, too, whether delivering a lengthy monologue or smooching Julie. (Or Maggie.) Particularly memorable was the dialogue between Jake and the "real life" Maggie, which had a forlorn undercurrent that was nicely captured by Joslyn and Hantz.
Flanigin's actors didn't always seem to know what to do with themselves physically, and there was quite a bit of easily fixable hand-wringing and skirt-smoothing going on. Meanwhile, his direction of Svoboda's 12-year-old girl would have been better suited for a character of five or six years old. (I haven't encountered many tweens with the childish habits of squealing and hair twirling and jumping up and down, gleefully clapping their hands. Tweenagers are much too cool to draw such attention to themselves.)
However, I loved Flanigin's use of the space when the younger Molly exited the stage at the same moment older Molly leapt onto it. And another nice touch was the figment Maggie's mimicking of Jake's new flesh-and-blood girlfriend, Sheila (Megan Baumunk, also the assistant director and costume and sound designer). It was clear that in choosing this script, though perhaps not Simon's most popular, Flanigin was effectively utilizing the talented pool of available, currently-enrolled female SCC students. And judging from the great time Joslyn appeared to be having amongst the estrogen-rich cast, I'm guessing he didn't mind a bit.
Jake's Women is being performed through April 17 in Scott Community College's Student Life Center, located through Door 5, off Parking Lot D. For information, call (563)441-4339.