If you’re a theatergoer under retirement age, you probably first learned about Roy Cohn from Tony Kushner’s Angels In America, which featured the real-life anti-Communist witch-hunting AIDS-decimated, closet-case lawyer among its cast of otherwise fictional characters.
Playwright Joan Beber now gives Roy Cohn a play he can call his own, one that features supporting appearances by Roy’s mother Dora, his rumored longtime lover G. David Schine, convicted American spy Julius Rosenberg (whom Cohn made sure got sent to the electric chair), Roy’s Hispanic housekeeper Lizette, and none other than Ronald Reagan and Barbara Walters themselves, all of the above in fantasy sequences that make those in Angels In America seem positively realistic by comparison.
The play in question is Hunger: In Bed With Roy Cohn, and if its avant-garde surrealism would under most circumstances prove too artsy for this reviewer’s tastes, its fact-based focus on fascinating 20th Century history-makers combined with one of the most stunning production designs in 99-seat-plan history and electric performances under Jules Aaron’s highly imaginative direction make Beber’s maiden effort one well worth taking a chance on.
Since the more you know about its nonfiction cast of characters, the more you will enjoy Hunger: In Bed With Roy Cohn, the Odyssey Theatre guest production has conveniently furnished playgoers with a page of must-read one-paragraph bios in the production’s playbill. Take a few minutes to scan them before the show and then sit back and enjoy the ride.
Hunger: In Bed With Roy Cohn describes itself as 12 Steps Through Purgatory In Roy Cohn’s Mind, and what a purgatory Hunger’s design team have come up with. John Iacovelli’s luxurious bedroom set with Roy’s king-sized (or should that be queen-sized?) bed dead center is but the start of a design package that also includes Jeremy Pivnick’s dramatic lighting, Shon LeBlanc’s bravura costume designs, Adam Flemming’s phantasmagorical projections, and Max Kinberg’s mood-setting original music and potpourri of sound effects—all of the above brought together in a hallucinatory display of precision design pyrotechnics like none you’ve probably ever seen before.
Hunger: In Bed With Roy Cohn gives us Roy’s conflicted relationship with his domineering mother, his insult-trading daily exchanges with his sexy, long-suffering housekeeper, and romantic interludes with a lover frustrated with Roy’s insistence on staying closeted for life. TV legend Walters makes frequent appearances as the loyalist of friends (and in Roy’s case beards) as does Ronnie Reagan, first in cowboy mode and later in Presidential garb. And where Angels In America featured a taunting ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, Hunger: In Bed With Roy Cohn gives us the specter of a studly but no more forgiving Julius. Finally, there’s “The Free-Spirited Young Roy,” whom program notes describe as “what he could have been in an open supportive environment.”
As Roy navigates his way through the “12 Step Program” Beber has conjured up for him, characters not only dialog with our antihero, they even occasionally dance with or around him in steps choreographed by the legendary Kay Cole (of A Chorus Line fame).
The result is a heady, bizarre, at times over-the-top, but never boring two acts of historical fantasy.
Part of the fun of Hunger: In Bed With Roy Cohn, is seeing Roy’s interactions with folks we’ve read about in newspapers or seen on our TV screens. Liza de Weerd (Barbara Walters) and David Sessions (Ronald Reagan) are both excellent, and resist the trap of celebrity impersonation in their colorful but very real performances. We may be less familiar with real-life Rosenberg and Schine, but Jon Levinson and Tom Galup give layered performances as each. Presciliana Esparolini is a saucy, sassy Lizette, understudy Alexana Thomas does powerful work as Roy’s bossy, then befuddled mother, and Jeffrey Scott Parsons is sexy as all get-out (and a superb dancer to boot) as a go-go boyesque Young Roy, who slides in and out from under that queen-sized bed more times that you can possibly count.
Still there would be no Hunger: In Bed With Roy Cohn without Roy himself, and at the performance reviewed, Bradley Fisher gave what may well end up the understudy performance of the year, a raging, raspy-voiced, power-mad, larger-than-life rapscallion of a man, at times monstrous, at times simply pathetic, but never less than fully three-dimensional, a feat made even more remarkable by the fact that Fisher did so without the months of rehearsal that went into bringing playwright Beber’s vision to life.
Wig design is by Diane Martinous. Casting is by Michael Donovan. Julie Simpson is stage manager. Hunger: In Bed With Roy Cohn is produced by Linda Toliver and Gary Guidinger.
Not all of Hunger: In Bed With Roy Cohn works as well as Beber would probably have wished. It’s never completely clear what lessons the playwright intends us (or Roy) to take from her maiden effort, the play ends with rather more a fizzle than a bang, and the character of Young Roy (and his role in the play) remains only vaguely defined. Still, this is entertaining, provocative theater, excitingly designed and imaginatively directed, and performed by a cast that could not be better. Wild, wacky, and weird it may be, but Hunger: In Bed With Roy Cohn is well worth a trip to the Odyssey.
Odyssey Theatre, 2055 South Sepulveda Boulevard, Los Angeles.
February 26, 2012
Photos by Michael Lamont feature Barry Pearl as Roy and Cheryl David as Dora