Published in KPBS On Air Magazine March 1990

They hang around dinner theaters and Equity houses, nodding and scratching, looking for a fix.   Sometimes they stalk the video stores, hoping to feed their habit. They don’t have to look too far.    They are Simon addicts, joke junkies hooked on the high they get from that prolific, punning playwright, Neil Simon.

Simon has fed this addiction for the past 29 years with nearly 45 stage and screen plays. After last year’s premiere of “Rumors” at the Old Globe Theatre, Simon’s back in San Diego , pushing punchlines in another world premiere, “Jake’s Women.” Ron Link, Resident Artist at L.A. ‘s Mark Taper Forum, directs.

“It’s terribly autobiographical,” Link said during a phone interview from his Hollywood home. “Jake is a writer.   He’s very rich and very successful… And he’s a man obsessed with women — a pregnant wife, an ex-wife, and a first wife who died. Neil has all of those.   I think it’s very brave of him to write a play this personal. It’s wonderfully honest. It’s Neil’s “8 1/2.” He’s trying to sort it all out: ‘Can I have a real relationship in this life?'”  

It’s not just a man’s play, says Link, and it’s not about men owning women, despite the possessive form of the title.  

“Women can relate to this as well as men. Because everyone is attracted to success, power and money. They have an almost sensual attraction. And we live with the fallacy that once you have success and money, you have no other problems. Jake learns that he’s terribly self-obsessed — with his career, with his life, with his first wife.   There are things here that we all feel. How much do our relationships fill up the void in our lives?   In one scene with his girlfriend, Jake says, ‘I want my life back.   I don’t want my work to be my life.'”

What Link likes about this play is that it harks back to Simon’s earlier work. It’s similar to “Chapter Two” in being intimate and revealing, and like the Brighton-Biloxi-Broadway trilogy, it’s “reminiscent and funny, yet not sad.   It has you laughing and crying.   Neil lets his melancholy show.”   

“Rumors” (now in its 14th month on Broadway), Simon’s first farce, departs from the usual addictive mélange of melancholy and comedy. Link is glad the old Simon is back for “Jake.”

“In the play, Jake is trying to sort out his life, and Neil manages to dish up psychology as something funny.   Through self-delving and exploration, Jake comes to be able to give himself over to his present woman, rather than thinking only about his past relationships, and over-idealizing his first wife. These are clearly the reflections of a man heading toward health.”

Link has no difficulty relating to the conflicts and concerns of the play. “I’m as interested in self-exploration as any audience member.   That’s the glorious thing about most of Neil’s plays; it’s always like you up there. It’s universal. This is about the voyage toward a better life. I’m just at a different point in my voyage. Neil is 60 or 61; I’m 47.”

Link’s voyage has taken him halfway around the world. He’s internationally known for directing the Australian premiere productions of Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs.”   And he’s done regional theater all over the U.S.

Neil Simon was in the audience last year when Ron Link staged “Stand-Up Tragedy” at the Mark Taper Forum. He liked what he saw, and called Link to discuss working on a project together. They’re now on the seventh draft of “Jake’s Women.” During rehearsals, there will probably be a good deal more massaging of the script, Link says with anticipation, “because Neil’s famous for writing for particular actors’ voices and rhythms.”

Simon has already paced his words to the cadence of Joyce van Patten (who appeared in “Rumors” and “Broadway Bound” before joining “Jake’s Women”).    But he’s never written for a non-mainstream actor like Peter Coyote, who plays the title role in “Jake.”   And Ron Link represents something of a directorial departure as well. In the past, Simon has stuck with the same directors, primarily Mike Nichols and Gene Saks. Link is different.  

“I’m an eclectic director… On the left, I’ve done very visceral, hard-edged works, and on the right, things almost lyrical, poetic. What’s miraculous and wonderful is Neil coming to “Stand-Up Tragedy” and seeing a different direction. And Peter Coyote playing Jake — that goes along with Neil’s reasons for changing directors and directions… certainly a left-of-center choice.”

Link has “a kind of surreal vision” of the play. He says that Simon himself considers this piece “a little more adventurous, which means more work that the audience will have to do.” That’ll probably be just fine with Neil Simon’s fanatic following.   They’re already hooked.

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“Jake’s Women” opens March 8 at the Old Globe Theatre, with previews from March 3-7.   The play runs through April 15 and opens on Broadway April 30.

©1990 Patté Productions Inc.