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THEATER REVIEWS : A Look Into the Dark Side of Neil Simon : Strong acting in production of ‘Jake’s Women’ compensates when the self-examination and pop psychology wears thin.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Of all of Neil Simon’s thinly disguised autobiographical plays, “Jake’s Women” is the darkest look at the writer’s inner self. There’s a fine production playing weekends at Ottavio’s Banquet Facility in Camarillo, under the direction of Gary Romm.

Jake, a writer, has reached a crisis in his personal life. He’s 53 years old and his second marriage is falling apart after several years; in part because he can’t rid himself of the memory of first wife, Julie, who died at 35 in an automobile accident. Most of “Jake’s Women” consists of encounters between Jake and the various women in his life, encounters that he is dreaming--"writing,” as it were, and occasionally rewriting.

As the play unfolds, Jake holds conversations with both wives, sister Karen, psychiatrist Edith, and his and Julie’s daughter, Molly, at the ages of 12 and 20. Occasionally, these dream characters hold conversations with one another--but only when Jake is present, as it’s all in his mind.

Jake is an author, not a playwright, so perhaps we’re not supposed to think of Simon in respect to the character. But it’s hard not to: They’re both of the same age and background, and--as usual--Simon makes his protagonist both witty and wise. And Simon’s first wife, like Jake’s, died young. Of course, Jake is so neurotic he makes Woody Allen look like John Wayne.

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The play is loaded with pop psychology. At one point, Jake tells his second wife, Maggie, “You love to play that tape back.” And there are overtly Freudian overtones--both psychiatrist Edith and sister Karen are surrogate mothers to Jake. The upside of all this is that Simon is exposing himself as few popular playwrights do. The downside is that cathartic though it may be, writers writing about writers is an unmistakable form of navel-gazing.

While it takes a very strong actor to play Jake, the female characters are equally important, especially when Simon’s self-examination begins to wear a bit thin.

J. Paul Vincent, who last year played the Simon surrogate in Ottavio’s production of “Chapter Two,” here plays Jake, a role created on Broadway by Alan Alda. Vincent’s Jake is much stronger if just as unprepared for life as the wimpy Eugene Jerome of Simon’s early autobiographical trilogy, starting with “Brighton Beach Memoirs.”

Arlene Weisenberg and Anne Mattingly are convincing as his motherly sister and psychiatrist. Lisa Mee plays long-suffering second wife, Maggie; Walker Christian is the paragon of a first wife, Julie; and Jennifer Simon and Mindy Mittleman have strong scenes as daughter Molly at 20 and 12 years old, respectively. Lisa Wolfe, a capable actress, is somewhat less convincing as Jake’s girlfriend, Sheila, if only because she doesn’t fit the stereotype of what a young professional woman looks like: this Sheila is, perhaps, a bit too informal.

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Details

* WHAT: “Jake’s Women.”

* WHEN: Thursday and Friday nights at 7 through Feb. 24; additional performance Saturday, Feb. 25.

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* WHERE: Ottavio’s Banquet Facility, 340 Mobil Ave., Camarillo.

* HOW MUCH: $26 per person, Thursday; $28 Friday, and $30 Saturday includes show, buffet dinner, nonalcoholic beverage, tax and gratuity. Youth (12-19) $19.95; children to 12, $12.95. $2 senior discount on Thursdays only. Open bar and wine available. Season tickets, group rates and fund-raising programs also available.

* FYI: Doors open at 6:30, dinner served at 7; show begins sometime after 8 p.m. For reservations or further information, call 484-9909.


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