Actor Peter Coyote was recalling the Wednesday evening performance of Neil Simon's "Jake's Women" at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. "When Stockard (Channing) and I came offstage at intermission, we threw our arms around each other with delight because the first act was so fresh and truthfully acted and we found so much wonderful new stuff in it.
"Then we heard at the intermission that Neil had stormed out telling a friend of ours that it was the worst show ever."
Simon was more than upset. The next day, America's most commercially successful playwright pulled the plug on his $1-million autobiographical comedy. After it closes at the Old Globe Theatre on April 15, it won't make its scheduled move to Broadway's Neil Simon Theatre, where it would have opened April 30.
The play, about a successful writer's tortuous relationships with women, is the first of Simon's Broadway-bound plays to stop short of Manhattan.
Coyote--who played Jake, the Simon surrogate--learned of the playwright's decision from a reporter on Thursday. After registering his surprise, he reflected on what went wrong:
"I think Neil is ambiguous about where he draws his nourishment, whether it's from the laughter of the audience or whether it's from the flow of ideas and feelings that crosses the stage."
The cast was "deeply committed to this project, rehearsing in the afternoon and adding new material in the evenings," said Coyote. "We've all given up more lucrative work to do this play. We've done everything that was possibly asked of us, including offering suggestions as to what we thought the problem was with the script. It's my opinion that there's a fundamental problem that hasn't been addressed. It's like a question of architecture that the actors are supposed to correct with paint and wallpaper."
There was no one problem with "Jake's Women," but an accumulation of troubles that began even before the play had its world premiere March 8 in San Diego. The Old Globe was considering a presentation of the play more than a year ago, but Simon couldn't cast the role of Jake to his satisfaction.
Simon dumped the play's original director just a week before the opening and substituted another director who was forced to split his time between jobs in San Diego and Los Angeles. Finally, when the play did open, the critics frowned, calling "Jake's Women" "too long" and "short of humor and innovation."
"We were at about 25% (of the play's artistic potential) on opening night, and we raised it to 75%,." Simon said. "But it's not enough, in terms of what people expect of me. We just thought it was prudent to stop."
Simon was unable to specify what the central problem with the play was. "We would have maybe five great performances (in San Diego) and then three that didn't work. I couldn't put my finger on why it was so erratic."
"We really didn't have a director," he remarked in a telephone interview.
Jack O'Brien replaced Ron Link as the director a week before the opening, after Simon became displeased with Link's work. But O'Brien was able to work only on weekends, because of his commitments to a KCET-TV production of "An Enemy of the People" in Los Angeles and the re-mounting of "The Cocktail Hour" at the Doolittle Theatre in Los Angeles.
"It wasn't his fault," said Simon. "But a play needs to be directed every day."
Asked why O'Brien was chosen rather than a full-time director, Simon said the only other directors he trusted, Gene Saks and Mike Nichols, were working on other projects far from California.
In O'Brien's weekday absence, "I became literally exhausted, doing day and night work," said Simon. "I must have written 55 or 60 new pages" since the opening.
The premature closing of the show will place its producers in the red by about $600,000, reported Simon, and "most of that is mine."
Advance sales for the Broadway production, scheduled to open April 30, had already sold out the house for two months, said Simon. "But I didn't trust the play enough to get by on that. I was too ambivalent about it. I feel badly about the cast. All of them worked so hard."
Asked if the Old Globe would suffer a financial loss, Simon said he wasn't sure. But the Old Globe "made a lot of money" from his earlier play, "Rumors," he said, "so maybe they'll break even."
Director O'Brien rejected the notion that the Old Globe might suffer financially from the failure of the show to move on. "We're in a subscription situation, and we've done enormously well at the box office," he said. "In fact, our main feeling of buoyancy has come from the response of the audiences."
The play was initially considered for presentation at the Old Globe in the fall of 1988, but when Simon couldn't find someone to play Jake, he replaced "Jake's" with "Rumors," which went on to Broadway success and will play the Doolittle Theatre next summer.
The removal of Link as director, a week before the opening of "Jake's," was a sign that the play still hadn't satisfied Simon, and the critical response didn't bolster his confidence. Wrote Sylvie Drake in The Times: "Just like its protagonist, 'Jake's Women' sends out a mixed and troubling message . . . It's as if Simon decided to write about himself but got cold feet. Like Jake, he's holding out on us--and worse, on himself."
Welton Jones of the San Diego Union wrote that "as with Jake, there's still a chance things will work out (for the play)." But "right now, the play is too long, too confusing in structure, too prone to tangents, too sentimental and far too personal."
"The result falls short in humor and innovation," chimed in Variety. Thomas O'Connor of the Orange County Register called the play "a muddled effort to merge Pirandello and the Borscht Belt . . . Neil, go back to the sitcom-sure one-liners."
O'Brien offered his own analysis: "When you deal with material from your own experience, and you 'fix' it for the sake of the (theatrical) experience, there's a dichotomy there." He said he wasn't sure what went wrong in this case, "but it adds up to the fact that the play ultimately didn't please Neil." Still, O'Brien doesn't regard the play as "a failure," but rather as "a remarkably complicated, visceral, enlightening experience."
The director was "deeply disappointed," however, "that the company heard about (Simon's decision) from the newspapers. The least we could have done was to have waited for the weekend," when O'Brien could have broken the news to the cast in person. Asked who was responsible for the fact that reporters learned of the decision before the cast, O'Brien replied, "It's Neil's responsibility."
"We have a theater, not an event," said O'Brien. "It hurts me when something like that happens."
Coyote, speaking Friday morning, agreed that "what stung the company most was the manner in which we received the news, which was from the press and each other. As of today, neither the producer (Emanuel Azenberg) nor Mr. Simon has spoken to me. But that's not too unusual in this business and I'm grateful for the fun of doing the play while it lasts."