Take it on faith: Playwrights who want to write about Baltimore are few and far between. That may explain the interest generated last summer, when, with very little notice, New York playwright Jeff Cohen dropped by the Creative Alliance at the Patterson for a two-day read-through of Men of Clay, a play that takes place on the Druid Hill Park tennis courts (“Practice Shots,” Stage, July 27, 2005). For the 49-year-old Cohen, an award-winning off-Broadway director and founder of Worth Street Theater Company, Men of Clay was a bittersweet tribute to the Liberty Heights area his father—and he—grew up in. As he puts it in the introduction to his script, Baltimore was a pretty nice place to grow up, if you were white, Jewish, and middle class. In 1973, when this play takes place, that was changing fast. Cohen calls the play “semiautobiographical.” It’s based on real Baltimoreans (several of whom were in the audience at the Creative Alliance read-through), including Cohen’s father, Stanley (aka “Squeaky”), who, in real life, after decades of evacuation and a few years of gentrification, hasn’t budged a foot from his house across from Druid Hill Park. Eight months after the Creative Alliance reading, Men of Clay is making its off-Broadway debut at New York’s June Havoc Theatre. Cohen is apprehensively confident, or confidently apprehensive—whatever it is you feel when you’re premiering a play in NYC that hasn’t been performed onstage before. But while Cohen has high expectations for Men of Clay, he has one regret: that he wasn’t able to give it a trial run in the town that gave him birth.
City Paper: So 30 years after leaving Baltimore, you write your first play about Druid Hill.
Jeff Cohen: It’s interesting . . . I was thinking of writing a play, and was writing down some lines of dialogue, and I remembered that it was kind of the language I heard when I was a kid, down in Druid Park. As I wrote it, I realized that Druid Hill Park in the late ’60s and early ’70s was a sort of crucible of change in Baltimore. Back then a lot of people were leaving Baltimore. And my father never moved—but at that point I remember the conflicts that were going on in the city. I mean, this takes place only a couple of years after the death of Martin Luther King and all those riots in Baltimore and around the country. At that time those conflicts were part of life there.
CP: You were a kid in Baltimore during the riots?
JC Well, I wasn’t involved, but I lived in the city. The riots were in ’69, I was born in ’57, so I was 11 and 12. I remember watching most of it on TV, all the violence and destruction. Then you would hear things like that, in Little Italy, white residents stood in front of their neighborhoods with shotguns to prevent looting. It was a pretty crazy time. But I don’t consider the play a travelogue of Baltimore at all. I think that this is about a bunch of guys at a time when things don’t really make sense for them anymore.
CP: And what sort of feedback have you gotten from Baltimoreans?
JC What’s interesting is that when we did the readings in Baltimore . . . there was such an outpouring of the old [Druid Park] community. There were real people mentioned in the play who all came out to see it. It was a wonderful experience.
CP: And have New Yorkers reacted differently?
JC In New York, the response has actually been less critical than in Baltimore. In Baltimore, after the play, there were people who were up in arms about the racial overtones, the sort of way the people spoke—a tough-guy, uneducated way. In New York, when they read the play, there was a sense of wonder at this group of people who are familiar but also a little foreign.
CP: It’s a little strange. This is a play about Baltimore, and you haven’t been able to get it performed in Baltimore.
JC That’s the frustrating thing. I wanted to have a developmental production in Baltimore, and it was the logical place. I was highly recommended to Center Stage. . . . Unfortunately despite all efforts, we couldn’t get any positive response. After being frustrated by that, we headed down to Creative Alliance. They were wonderful, terrific, and obviously so accommodating. But they didn’t have the facilities for a full performance. So we did a few preliminary readings at the Patterson. That was enormously helpful, but I’d prefer to have been able to do some of the development productions in Baltimore. It’s a little disappointing.
CP: What exactly is a developmental production?
JC Developmental production is when you perform a play that has never been produced before an audience. You have an opportunity to put it into rehearsal, and have a set and have lights, and then find out whether or not it needs changes . . . before putting it in front of the really harsh light of the industry and theater critics in NYC. Unfortunately, we didn’t get that. So we wind up in New York, in what is arguably the harshest critical environment in the country. It’s a little nerve-racking.
CP: Any plans for bringing it to Baltimore?
JC I don’t have anything yet, but it’s going to happen. What I think would be ideal would be a collaboration between Creative Alliance and Everyman Theatre. . . . But as I understand it, that’s not exactly Everyman’s mission. They generally do plays that have been proven off-Broadway. Center Stage is more about development for plays that wind up off-Broadway.
CP: So they’re the only place in town where professional companies can work on plays.
JC (laughs) But they didn’t give us the time of day. I don’t even know if [artistic director] Irene Lewis was made aware of it. We couldn’t get through the bureaucracy there.
CP: What bureaucracy?
JC What happened is that Men of Clay was recommended to one of the script-reading departments. Apparently the play wound up with a literary associate. It took six weeks to hear back from him. His response was that they are more interested in plays for a twenty- to thirtysomething demographic . . . which I thought was a little outrageous way to dismiss a play that was about the Baltimore community. But then I don’t think there are that many points in Center Stage history where they have supported plays that are about Baltimore. I don’t want to be bashing Center Stage, I just think this play got lost in the shuffle, and I think it’s a shame.
CP: So what’s next after New York?
JC We’re scheduled to play in York, Pa., this summer. It may not be the same cast, but it’s essentially the same production.
CP: I saw the Creative Alliance reading. Is this going to be the same cast?
JC No, with the caliber of actors that we use, they wind up getting other work. Peter Jacobson—who played Ira at the reading—had a television contract in Los Angeles. He told me that it broke his heart, but he had to take it. Now we’ve got a great cast, though—Matthew Arkin [son of Alan], Danton Stone, Steve Rattazzi.
CP: This is essentially a play about a tight Jewish community. You wonder if it’s looked at as a niche play?
JC Well, if that’s what they think, we’ll crash and burn. It’s not really the sort of reaction we’ve gotten, though. This is about a lot more than Druid Hill.
CP: Have you been down there recently?
JC I go there to visit my dad, since he still lives on Liberty Heights Road. If it’s changing, I don’t see it. It’s still pretty blighted. I know that around the reservoir there’s been some gentrification, but no, for the most part, it doesn’t seem to be changing.
CP: Is he still going to be living there for the foreseeable future?
JC I don’t think you can pry him out of there with a crowbar.
CP: What did he think about the play?
JC His reaction was emotional and sad, because of the time—that was a sad time for all of us. But he’s also enormously proud. The thing that’s most important to me is that the play is a tribute to him.
CP: That’s your first play?
JC It was my first. It was hard. It took seven years to finish. For a long time, I couldn’t find the second half of the play. As a director I thought I had the proper amount of directing work—I mean, I’ve been directing for decades—but writing this was tough.
CP: So how long is the run?
JC First performance is March 30, last one is April 23. If things go well, it might go a week longer. Then there’s a host of commercial off-Broadway producers who are interested, so we’ll see. If the reviews are good enough. Of course, that means that The New York Times has to like the play.
CP: Theater reviewers must be really important in New York City.
JC Yeah, that’s the tough thing about the city. It’s all in the hands of the New York Times critic. But that’s playing in the big leagues.
CP: Right. So when are you coming back to Baltimore?
JC There’s going to be a production in Baltimore, although we don’t know where. We’re going to try to work something in. Ideally it would be collaboration with Creative Alliance and a theater like Everyman. Otherwise, [CA program director] Megan Hamilton and I have had discussions about other ways to produce this.
And actually, we’re doing a performance on April 1 [in New York] for Baltimore audiences. We’re bringing people up on bus and having a reception afterward. I think there are seats left. People can get them on the web site.
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