Men of Clay
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 1, 2006
Two aspects of Jeff Cohen's appealing new play Men of Clay are particularly noteworthy. First, instead of cloaking autobiography in made-up names, places, etc., Cohen has elected to go the unexpurgated route: the names of the characters in the story are their real names, and the events depicted here, in broad outline at least, actually happened. Yet Men of Clay is not docudrama—far from it. It's a memory play, a look back at the playwright's adolescence 30 years ago, entirely subjective and, moment to moment, completely fictionalized.
Which brings me to the second singular element of Men of Clay: though the teenage Jeff is never seen on stage, his spirit is omnipresent throughout the piece. Men of Clay is about Cohen's father, Stan, and his closest friends, but we see them entirely through his son's young eyes. The result is a portrait that's blurry and out-of-focus, with a good deal of potentially valuable information missing or withheld. It's a son's attempt to understand the one man in the world he probably never can (i.e., his father), and on its own terms it wholly succeeds.
Stan "Squeaky" Cohen is a special but ordinary guy: likable, earnest, constitutionally irresponsible, cheap, naive. We never know whether he has a steady job or, if so, what it is; we do know that he loves jazz, women, tennis, and his sons (not necessarily in that order); that he lives with his aged mother in a lousy neighborhood in Inner City Baltimore; that he, in the central episode propelling this play, gets himself into foolish trouble by buying a brand-new car from a buddy for $1,500—a car he should have known (and, at least sub-consciously, probably did know) was stolen goods.
But more important, perhaps, Stan is presented here as an exemplar of a kind of guy, a generation of working-class Jewish men who grew up in what amounted to a ghetto in downtown Baltimore; scrappy, feisty, grasping men who worked hard to pull themselves away from their roots but never felt equal to the "country club Jews" in the suburbs. These are the men of the play's title—Stan and his lifelong friends, Ira Farber, Nate Askin, and Danny Dickler; the "clay" refers to the tennis courts at Druid Hill Park, where these four played their favorite sport for years. These guys regard Druid Hill as their personal clubhouse: nicer than the blacktop courts where the "schwartzes" (Yiddish for blacks) play, and—unlike the suburban clubs—free.
In five scenes that span about two years in the early 1970s, Cohen deftly reveals these men who had such an important impact on his youth, and it's as a character study that Men of Clay really shines. Ira talks too much, is just this side of blowhard in fact, except it's clear that he's sincerely good-hearted underneath his bluster. Nate is the quiet one, the pontificator; Danny is a bit younger, tagging along, agreeable and eager to please. Cohen has captured their unique voices in his sparkling dialogue and the interplay among these overgrown boys feels completely natural. The ending of the play is oddly touching, with these four middle-aged men aware, for once, that the world around them is about to overtake them; it feels like the finish of a coming-of-age high school flick, except the protagonists are all 45 instead of 18.
Cohen has directed the play himself, on a simple and effective set (design uncredited) that easily morphs from Druid Hill Park to a "bachelor pad" shared by Stan, Ira, Danny, and Danny's shady cousin Arnie (he's the fellow who sells Stan the hot car) to Federal Hill, near Baltimore Harbor. Script, staging, and ensemble contribute mightily to Men of Clay's sense of atmosphere; indeed the strongest performances come from the supporting players—Dan Ahearn as mild but phlegmatic Nate, Victor Barbella as even-tempered but not-so-bright Danny, and Gabrielle Maisels as Rocky Gorelick, Stan's pragmatic and appealing girlfriend.
Steven Rattazzi is funny as Ira, but it didn't seem to me that he quite captured the singular charm of this fellow. Matthew Arkin does a nice job as Arnie, presented here more or less as the villain of the piece, and Danton Stone is enormously sympathetic as Stan; but both actors are working within necessarily sketchy outlines here: the play's impressionistic approach doesn't allow us to get too deeply inside either of these guys and so both remain fuzzy figures by intention. (A special shout-out to all six actors is in order because, at the performance reviewed, just about all of the people depicted in the play—the real Stan, Ira, Danny, Arnie, and Nate—were in the audience. I can't imagine anything more nerve-wracking for an actor than knowing that the person he's playing is watching him; these folks are consummate pros.)
Men of Clay is obviously enormously personal, but any child who ever tried to make sense of their father and his friends (and why those people are his friends) is going to feel the resonance of this smart and deeply felt play. Especially with the real-life models in the room, I felt like I'd been let into a private and intimate corner of Cohen's heart. There are some rich emotional secrets there to be revealed.