Not even 2nd Star Can Freshen Jake’s Women

Jake’s Women, 2nd Star Productions’ fall season opener, presents an attractive setting for some fine local talent. But despite a valiant effort on the company’s part, this 1992 Neil Simon comedy fails to grab the audience by the collar and draw them back for more. It was a snoozer in the 1996 film adaptation, even with an all-star cast headed by Alan Alda, and it remains drowsy in this production.

José de la Mar is excellent in the lead role as an emotionally distant writer whose controlling nature pushes his wife, Maggie (the strong and likeable Maribeth Vogel Eckenrode), to the brink of divorce. The bonfire they build early in Act I, though, dies to a pilot light by intermission, only to reignite mid-way through Act II with a brief scene starring Janice Coffey as Jake’s marvelous ditz of a girlfriend, Sheila. Adele Degnan also does a laudable job as his mothering therapist Edith. But good characters are not enough to shake the somnolent effect of the play’s dialogue.

Blame it on the script. Less funny ha-ha than funny weird, it depicts Jake as a brilliant daydreamer who relies on fantasy to cope with reality by imagining conversations with the leading ladies in his life: Maggie; Edith; Sheila; his clownish sister Karen (Heidi Toll); his one-dimensional deceased wife Julie (Natalia Esteve); and daughter Molly, adoring at age 13 (Vivian Wingard) and circumspect at age 21 (Lauren Fox.)

This plot device poses the questions of just when a coping mechanism becomes a crutch and whether a writer can suffer from too much imagination. It’s typical Simon fare for its contrived situations and urban neurotics who drink and whine too much about their crazy lives. But the one-liners are flat, and the narrative arc is self-indulgent and annoyingly absurd.

It’s a little Woody Allen — Analysis doesn’t cure you. It just makes you feel better between sessions — and a little Noel Coward (Blithe Spirits), both of whom are referenced in the play. It’s a little maudlin at times, and at its best it’s a comedy of errors when the visions interrupt each other. It’s even laugh-out-loud funny when Eckenrode apes an hysterical Coffey behind her back. Mostly, though, it’s just tiresome.

Technically speaking, the show uses subtle lighting cues and a split stage to clearly demarcate Jake’s dream world from his reality. Some of the costume choices, though, and Julie’s in particular, are less than character building and so unflattering that they distract from the action.

If you’re a Neil Simon buff, if you enjoy chaos or if you think an afternoon on the therapist’s couch sounds like fun, you might enjoy this show. If not, there’s always the November murder-mystery-musical spoof, Something’s Afoot, to look forward to.

Directed by Charles W. Maloney. Set and costumes by Jane B. Wingard. Lighting and sound by Garrett R. Hyde.

Playing thru the Bowie Playhouse thru Sept. 11 at 8pm FSa; 3pm Su at Bowie Playhouse, 199 White Marsh Park Dr., Bowie. $20: 410-757-5700;