Sets in the City

The first act in Jeff Cohen's bid to get his tennis-playing dad's story produced off-Broadway takes place where it all happened.

July 21, 2005|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN ARTS WRITER

NEW YORK - In his heyday, Stanley Cohen was a first-rate salesman, with a twinkly smile and a habit of leaning close and confidentially gripping your arm. He knew all the tricks of the trade, so he never expected to get sold down the river.

The younger Cohen, Jeff, also is a bit of a salesman, having used his talent and considerable charm to forge a life against all odds in the notoriously punishing world of New York theater. He is a founder and director of the respected Worth Street Theater and has a formidable eye for talent; among his early "finds" was actress Laura Linney.

Now, Jeff Cohen has written Men of Clay, a play set in Baltimore in the 1970s. A staged reading will be held this weekend at Creative Alliance featuring Zachary Galligan, who starred in Gremlins 2. Cohen hopes to launch his play off-Broadway this fall. It won't be easy - there still are many details to work out. But then, it's never easy.

One of Cohen's mentors, Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang (M Butterfly) writes in support of the play: "Men of Clay is heartfelt and accessible, a funny and moving account of Jewish slackers from Mr. Cohen's Baltimore boyhood. It is quite beautifully accomplished, filled with fascinating characters, exploring a little-known subculture which has not yet been seen on our stages."

Set in 1973, the year Cohen's father went to jail briefly for buying a stolen car, the play tells the story of his wisecracking buddies - all tennis players and salesmen - who stood by him.

"Men of Clay is true," Cohen writes in the play's foreword. "Or, as least as true as a story can be through the filter of memory thirty years later. The basic events happened and the people in the play are as real as I can remember them."

Stanley Cohen and his friends, now in their 70s and 80s, still live in Baltimore and still play tennis together. On a sweltering summer day with the sun as white as a hardboiled egg, he and Ira Farber, Nate Askin and Danny Dickler took time away from the clay courts at St. Paul's School to talk about their seven-decade friendship.

Farber and Stanley Cohen lived around the corner from one another and began playing tennis as teens. "Twice a week, we'd stop talking [to one another] over line calls and whose turn it was to supply the balls," Farber says.

But in the tennis game of life, Stan and Ira played doubles. One of the endearing things about Men of Clay is how "tennis player" becomes synonymous with "person of integrity."

Men of Clay is replete with such familiar Bawlamer landmarks as Cross Keys, Druid Hill Park and the Coca-Cola snowballs once sold by Mannheimer's Drug Store. Characters use such old-time phrases as "wally cha cha" to express amazement and refer to quarrels as "rhubarbs."

But Cohen prefers his snowballs without excess sweetener. The play deals frankly with the era's racial tensions - in one scene, the friends refer to black tennis players as "animals" and cheer when they are forced to leave the all-white court.

Stanley Cohen admits incidents like that occurred but says they weren't racially motivated. He points out that he was president of Baltimore's first integrated tennis club. "I was Jewish," he says. "I know what it is to be a minority. It was a matter of expediency; we wanted to play tennis, and all the courts were taken. We saw a way to get a court, and we took it."

The elder Cohen isn't proud of that now. Nor is he proud of the lapse of judgment that sent him to jail for 30 days in 1973.

From the vantage point of 2005, it's difficult to imagine a first-time offender being imprisoned for a crime as minor as possessing a stolen car - one stolen car. But things were different then. Stanley Cohen still tears up when he talks about his prosecution and conviction. But he doesn't fault his son for including it in his play.

"That's a part of my life that I'm very ashamed of," Stanley Cohen says. "But the worst part was the effect it had on my boys." (Jeff Cohen is the younger son. His older brother, Rob, lives in Atlanta.)

Though Jeff Cohen says in the foreword that Men of Clay is inspired by actual events, he never meant for people to take it as a word-for-word transcription of reality. For instance, he hasn't decided yet whether to give his characters made-up names - up to and including the "villain" of the piece, still living in Baltimore, who rats out Stan to the authorities. (His real name is used in the draft.)

"I prefer to think of this play as a warm tribute to my father and his friends," Jeff Cohen says. "If certain aspects of it are unflattering, it makes the entire portrait more authentic."

At 47, Jeff Cohen has the beetled brow and rounded contours of a modern-day Fred Flintstone. He also has the cartoon character's fabled ability to schmooze - a quality that has stood him in good stead.

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