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Practice Shots

Reading Of Jeff Cohen’s Men Of Clay Revisits Tennis-Court Life On 1970 Druid Hill Park Courts

Michelle Gienow

By John Barry | Posted 7/27/2005

It’s Friday night, and the Creative Alliance has more comb-overs per square yard than it’s had in a while. “Yeah, this is a total reunion,” program director Megan Hamilton laughs, looking at the sold-out crowd of happily chattering, over-60 Baltimoreans. The occasion is the first scripted reading of Jeff Cohen’s Men of Clay, a full-length play about the old Jewish neighborhood around Druid Hill Park in 1970. Judging from the conversations buzzing around the hallways, many in the audience knew that neighborhood firsthand.

Cohen—who is founder and director of New York’s Worth Street Theatre Company—hasn’t lived in the Liberty Heights area since graduating from high school in 1975 but chose it as the subject of his first play. “It was an incredibly influential time for me because it was a time of great transition,” he says. “And this is really the story of something coming to an end—the Jewish community around Druid Hill.”

Men of Clay features Ira, Nate, and Danny: single Jewish men in their early 40s who hang on to tennis courts in Druid Hill Park as their last link to inner-city Baltimore. The neighborhood, basically, is falling apart; the exodus of the Jewish middle class is almost complete. There’s one holdover: Stan “Squeaky” Cohen, the central character, a 45-year-old divorced dad who, out of stubbornness and cheapness, has moved in with his mom on Liberty Heights Avenue. That stubbornness and his cheapness rankles his friends and Rocky, his ex-girlfriend. It also gets him in a little trouble when he buys a hot car from a sleazy out-of-towner named Arnold.

Cohen delivers a pro-forma disclaimer before the play. Men of Clay is about a time and place with which most in tonight’s audience have some contact—names have not been changed to protect the innocent. Since Cohen’s father is actually in the audience, there isn’t much point in convincing them that any resemblances are coincidental. And yes, Cohen’s dad did go to the slammer for about a month for purchasing a stolen vehicle.

In the lobby, before and after the play, the old Druid Hill crowd parses through the events and characters referred to in the play. One gentleman, a courtly, tall man in his 80s, introduces himself as Al “Doc” Stambler. His name comes up in Cohen’s play as one of the upper-crust Jews the boys from Druid Hill always wanted to beat. “The actor has Squeaky’s laugh down,” Stambler mulls. “But I didn’t know he was so good-looking.” And then he starts on tennis: “It’s a game that stays with you forever. Some of those guys would drop whatever they were doing to go play on the courts. One friend of mine, a pharmacist, used to leave the shop to his two kids whenever a good game came up. Of course, I never did that.”

The characters in Cohen’s play are fairly forthright in their mistrust of “schwartzes”—black Baltimoreans—and Cohen acknowledges that there are nuances here that some may miss. “I wouldn’t call them racist,” he explains, referring to their bubbling resentment of their new neighbors. “Things were coming to an end there. This play is really about how people act when they think they’re being kicked out.”

In the post-play discussion, the enthusiastic audience has a few tips to offer. There’s a little criticism of the actors’ grasp of Yiddish. And one woman is a little offended by the somewhat earthy language of the Jewish men in the play: “You’d think that instead of being Jewish they were from Highlandtown.” And another woman, leaning over to a friend in the back row, complains, “They don’t even mention that all that women brought them food on the court.”

Cohen sounds a little frustrated by the difficulty he’s had finding a venue in Baltimore for this reading. After applying to Center Stage and Everyman, he says he considers the Creative Alliance a lucky break. But for the moment, he indicates, Baltimore’s professional theater scene doesn’t do much to support playwrights and professional actors in their development phase. Although he says that Center Stage has given him a venue for readings in the past, it was less interested in helping with plays on local themes.

And after this past weekend’s three sold-out performances, Cohen and his band of actors are ready to pack their bags and head back to New York. While Cohen still plans more polishing, he thinks the play is near completion and ready to move into production. His six actors are moving into their roles comfortably and the audience has responded enthusiastically. He expects to begin an off-Broadway run sometime this fall, naming the Public Theater as a possible venue. Then, within the year, he plans to return to Baltimore with the full production. If this week’s production is any indication, it could be a blockbuster—provided he finds a place to stage it.

“I mean, this play was sold out three times in two days, and it was just a reading,” Cohen says. “There’s obviously an audience for it. Why is it so hard to find a venue for it?”

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