In CAT's "Jake's Women," behind one good man are a half dozen great women 

A Good Day for a Daydream

If you started hearing voices in your head — and then those voices started arguing — you'd probably call your shrink. Playwright Neil Simon apparently took to his word processor instead, and the result is the excellent dramatic comedy "Jake's Women," which opened at the Chamberlayne Actors Theatre (CAT) last week. Though there is very little plot in this excessively talky play, the emotional territory covered is vast and compelling. Simon takes his typically clever and quippy dialogue and shoots it through with healthy doses of pure pathos. Masterfully directed by Amy Berlin and propelled by a genuine chemistry between the two lead actors, this production marks the best effort from CAT this season.

The Jake of the title is a 53-year-old writer who is facing a major life crisis: His second wife, Maggie, has moved out on him. As he struggles to deal with heartache and uncertainty, he indulges in daydreams populated by various women from his life, including his first wife, Julie (Kristen Swanson), who died 15 years before; his college-age daughter, Molly (Deborah Layman); and his smart-alecky analyst Edith (Fricka Raycroft). While their advice and banter is comforting at first, these imaginings start to get quarrelsome and, eventually, downright mutinous. They eventually force Jake out of his head and compel him to embrace his life before it gets away from him.

When "Jake's Women" played on Broadway in the early '90s, Alan Alda was the star. CAT's Jake, Stan Kelly, has Alda's lanky physicality and a similarly deft comic touch. Though I kept wanting the character to open up more, to break down a little, Kelly keeps Jake a touch standoffish up to the very end, probably a much more honest approach. Terry Gau makes for a fully three-dimensional Maggie. Her depiction of a woman who grows from frightened New York newcomer to confident career woman is a marvel because she shows the character's growth in multiple shades of gray instead of black and white.

Besides recruiting some topflight acting talent, director Berlin succeeds in generating interesting dynamics in what could be a very static show. She is ably assisted by lighting designer Cindy Warren, whose cues mark the show's transitions from reality to fantasy, and set designer Lin Heath, whose raggedly sliced backdrop acts as a constant reminder of the psychic break going on in Jake. But it is in constructing powerful scenes that complement Simon's quick-witted dialogue that Berlin truly excels. The interlude featuring an imaginary Maggie echoing the tantrum of Jake's very real new girlfriend, Sheila (Teresa Perkins), is laugh-out-loud funny.

Berlin and her cast have built a thoroughly satisfying production. While many of "Jake's Women" may be figments of his imagination, the quality of this show is

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