Adrift in a sea of male menopause: Two Muses’ production of Jake’s Women

And presenting: ALL of Jake's Women. His girlfriend, his therapist, his sister, his wife, his late wife, his daughter aged 21 and 12. November 14-December 7. A heartwarming comedy by Neil Simon. [Photo by Melissa Tremblay of Platinum Imagery.]

And presenting: ALL of Jake’s Women. His girlfriend, his therapist, his sister, his wife, his late wife, his daughter aged 21 and 12. Through December 7. [Photo by Melissa Tremblay of Platinum Imagery.]

Playwright Neil Simon has always seemed to me like a man adrift in a sea of male menopause. The man sure can write a very funny line (I often think his work is best served in a musical comedy setting), yet he seems preserved in Swinging 60s amber, a throwback to another time when the whole country fantasized about living on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and found humor in delicatessen euphemisms and sitcom-sexualized comedies of error.

 

Simon’s semi-autobiographical memory play Jake’s Women, thereby is an interesting conundrum. First produced in 1990 and starring Alan Alda, the show is Simon’s post-mid-life-theatrical-crisis-writ-large. Simon literally and figuratively exorcises the the ghosts of women who have influenced and shaped his work. Take that, Joan Baim! And that, Marsha Mason! And that … Elaine Joyce?!? In the wrong hands, the play could be an exercise in misogyny at worst or farcical foolishness at best – a kind of Borscht Belt version of Fellini’s 8 1/2 (itself later staged/musicalized by Maury Yeston as Nine).

I am happy to report that the sparkling ensemble in Two Muses’ current production of Jake’s Women (directed by Bailey Boudreau) hits all the right notes. Given that Two Muses’ mission is to promote and celebrate the artistic contributions of women, this play is an inspired and intriguing choice. In lead actor Robert Hotchkiss, the production gives us a sensitive and grounded Jake, informed and haunted as much by modern life/sensibilities as he is by any kind of cooked-up gender war.

Jake’s marriage to whip smart corporate warrior Maggie is failing as he has never gotten past the death of his first wife Julie. The past and present collide as Dickensian specters (wives, daughter, therapist, sister, paramour) shadow Jake’s every move, given vibrant, intrusive life by his crumbling mental state. Jake as a writer is forever trapped in his own head, revisiting the past as a means of understanding the present yet never truly living in any moment. Jake’s laptop computer is an omnipresent stage symbol of the wall he puts between himself and the rest of humanity. I suspect anyone with a smart phone can relate to that.

As Maggie, Amy Morrissey provides the perfect counterpoint to Jake’s neuroses. She has a tricky task of playing Maggie both in the present day and as an idealized Maggie from the early days of their relationship. The actress shows great warmth and humor for the material but is never sidelined by Simon’s more misogynistic tendencies. Maggie is a person first and foremost, as she intones to Jake in one of their later conversations.

The ensemble work is particularly strong in this production. Charlotte Weisserman as Jake’s 12-year-old daughter Molly beams with a mischievously angelic presence – as does Barbie Weisserman as Jake’s sister, the chaotically big-hearted filmmaker Karen. (No shock there I supposed as Charlotte clearly has inherited some lovely, natural stage gifts from her talented real-life mom Barbie.)

Some of the production’s most emotionally affecting moments come from the theatrical mother-daughter team of Meredith Deighton as Jake’s late wife Julie  and Egla Kishta as college-age Molly. The familial dynamic achieved between Alexander, Kishta, and Hotchkiss during the play’s second act is remarkable – deeply felt with a comfort and ease rarely seen on any stage.

It wouldn’t be a Neil Simon show without some broad comic relief. Margaret Gilkes is sharp-edged fun as Jake’s saucy therapist Edith, aided and abetted by some of the script’s best zingers, which Gilkes nails with Elaine Stritch-y aplomb. Luna Alexander as Jake’s of-the-moment mistress has the show’s most raucous scene  (think The Odd Couple‘s Pigeon Sisters by way of The Jersey Shore‘s Snooki and Jwoww), and she wrings every bit of rimshot glee from her second act moment.

Like the majority of Two Muses’ output, the production values are spot-on, with clever and efficient use of the space, detailed but never overdone set dressing, classic character driven costuming, and an evocative lighting plot.

Back to Jake:  Hotchkiss builds his character beautifully, giving us a broken soul who is not just relatable but a lot of fun to watch. Jake’s journey is a difficult one to convey on stage, rife with potentially self-indulgent pitfalls, but Hotchkiss is very smart, warm, and wry and never panders to the audience or to his character’s many, many flaws.

Jake follows a similar arc to Company‘s Bobby, never sure who he really is and only finding motivation by pinging off the input of others. Unlike Sondheim, however, Simon offers Jake a bit more redemption. Hotchkiss does a fine job walking Jake’s circuitous path as he realizes that snark and witty wordplay do not healthy flesh-and-blood relationships make. The play’s script leaves us with an ambiguously happy ending, as Jake and Maggie set off to resolve their differences, but the rich performances by Hotchkiss and Morrissey overlay that denouement with a believable and honest sense of the couple’s future chances.

The play runs through December 7 at Two Muses Theatre. Two Muses Theatre performs in the Barnes & Noble Booksellers Theatre Space, 6800 Orchard Lake Rd, West Bloomfield, MI  48322, South of Maple (15 Mile). Enter the bookstore, and the theatre is on the left. Tickets can be purchased online here or by calling 248.850.9919 (Box Office Hours: By phone:  10am-5pm.  In person at the theatre, 60 minutes prior to all performances.)

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Countdown: The Guilt Trip

From my wonderful publisher Open Books

Just 17 days until the release date of ReelRoyReviews, a book of film, music, and theatre reviews, by Roy Sexton!

Here’s what Roy thought about The Guilt Trip: “The film blessedly avoids slapstick predictability and deftly sidesteps Freudian mama-bashing. The dynamic between the two actors is that of mother and son, a delicate spider web of love and generosity and aggravation and pride, and they deliver it with aplomb. I really loved this movie, and I hope, with time, people will discover and enjoy it for the kind-hearted enterprise that it is.”

Learn more about REEL ROY REVIEWS, VOL 1: KEEPIN’ IT REAL by Roy Sexton at http://www.open-bks.com/library/moderns/reel-roy-reviews/about-book.html. Book can also be ordered at Amazon here.

How I spent my Christmas vacation…Les Miz, Django, and Babs

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One of the things I look forward to most every holiday season is the movie marathon I share with my parents. Hollywood back-loads all their great Oscar bait films from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, and every year my parents and I try to cram in as many as we can in a three-to-four day period. Invariably, we have a number of disappointments along the way.

Let me be clear, sometimes we do all of this in a single day. I think our record may be four movies in one twenty-four hour period…but that was also a day where we got so intoxicated by movie magic and stale popcorn that we saw anything with the right start time that allowed us to go from one movie right into the next (tickets purchased for all, of course). I believe on that auspicious occasion, in our weakness, we saw The Golden Compass…I think we were the only three people in America who ever saw The Golden Compass. It was pretty turgid.

So what cinematic treasures did Santa leave in our collective stocking this year? Three super-hyped, market-saturating, blockbuster-hopefuls: Les Miserables, Django Unchained, and The Guilt Trip. You know what? All three were perfection – that has never happened in the brief history of the Sexton Family’s Hide-from-the-Bothersome-Relatives-Holiday-Film-Fest.

Les Miserables ran the risk of not meeting the breathless anticipation whipped up through its ubiquitous and compelling advertising campaign. Happily, it far exceeded our expectations in every way. Much has been written about Tom Hooper’s decision to have his actors act and sing the challenging music live, as opposed to recording in a studio weeks before filming, only to lip sync before the cameras. It works and works well.

We listened to the soundtrack album the night before seeing the movie, and I’m still not sure if that was a good or bad idea. The CD is not exactly fun listening. Yet, it did prepare us for the vocal stylings of the key performers, and, as viewers, we were perhaps better equipped to appreciate the film as narrative. My mom said it best, “It’s like watching a film with sub-titles…you just get used to the singing and after a point forget you are even watching a musical…in a good way.”

I enjoyed every performer in the film, and any flaws, in my estimation, are inherent in the source material. For instance, I don’t much care for the young lovers storyline, and the nefarious Dickensian innkeepers even less so. Regardless, everyone in the ensemble – notably Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, and Eddie Redmayne – executes their piece in Victor Hugo’s ever-unfolding diorama of some French Revolution (I’m still not sure which one) breathtakingly. I cried countless times. Darn, this movie is cathartic.

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I don’t much want to get into a debate about the merits of Russell Crowe’s performance as Inspector Javert. People are hung up on his singing style – which I for one thought was just fine, though we did have our doubts when listening to the CD before seeing the film. What I ask is that you view his performance as that of a consummate actor in service to story in a cinematic way. He could play the role as Snidely Whiplash. He doesn’t. He underplays to great effect, against the overall hammy-ness of the show’s origins, offering a stolid, pedantic take on his character’s rigid moral code. I liked him a lot. ‘Nuff said.

Django Unchained is pure Tarantino in form and style and exceptionally crafted in every way. Strangely, both Django and Les Miz (I sort of hate that nickname by the way), released together on Christmas Dayexplore themes of persecution, faith, oppression, and the redeeming hope of friendship and love. Who’d-a-thunk?

In Django’s case, a lot of ink has been spilled already about the violence, gunplay, and prodigious use of the “N-word” (another diminutive that always bugs me). Do I admit to feeling a bit squeamish at times during the film for these reasons? You betcha. Was I more bothered that some thuggish teenagers in the Midwestern audience with me were laughing un-ironically at these elements? God, yes. Is that Tarantino’s fault? Emphatically, no.

What Tarantino has been doing to great effect through his last several films – the Kill Bill two-parter, Inglourious Basterds, and now Django – is put our societal propensity for violence, pettiness, ugliness under a tight microscope. He directs particular ire at our American condition to view the different with derision and hate and anger. With Django, he may as well throw battery acid on the Southland, exposing the inherent hypocrisy of good Christians whose economic standing was achieved on the bloody backs of far too many African-Americans.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

If nothing else, go see this one for Leonardo DiCaprio’s bravura turn as the well-heeled owner of a plantation cheekily named Candyland. He is a whirlwind of oily smiles, fey mannerisms, and unbridled bile. I adored watching him in the film. Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx more than hold their own, but the film springs fully to life when DiCaprio joins the proceedings. Pay close attention when he brings his doctor’s bag into the dining room – that scene alone is Oscar-worthy. Not the time you want to take a potty break.

Finally, The Guilt Trip … if one of these things is not like the others, I suppose it is this film, but it is no less perfection in my eyes. I am astounded at the negative reviews I have read on this one. I suspect the film is a victim of its holiday timing and its star power (Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen). If it had been quietly released in March or some other time, perhaps viewers would give it a fair chance…or maybe not.

Regardless, this is a gem of a little film. As actors, both Streisand and Rogen can be undermined by their own excesses (see Prince of Tides and The Green Hornet respectively). Yet, in this film, they are authentic, subtle (or at least what passes for subtlety for either), and thoroughly charming as a mother and son trapped in one tiny car together on a cross-country road trip.

The film blessedly avoids slapstick predictability and deftly sidesteps Freudian mama-bashing. The dynamic between the two actors is that of mother and son, a delicate spiderweb of love and generosity and aggravation and pride, and they deliver it with aplomb. I really loved this movie, and I hope, with time, people will discover and enjoy it for the kind-hearted enterprise that it is.

That’s it folks…and if you see three people next Christmas Day schlepping a monster-size bucket of popcorn from one Fort Wayne, Indiana-theatre to the next, give us a wave…and discourage us from seeing another Golden Compass.