By Beatrice Williams-Rude
In Bed With Roy Cohn is a nightmarish fantasy about the last hours of a man whose largely destructive role in American history is still resonating: Donald Trump was one of his clients, as were reputed Mafiosi including John Gotti, as well as Francis Cardinal Spellman and Terence Cardinal Cooke and, on occasion, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York.
While Roy Cohn’s life provides a cornucopia of fascinating material—the Army McCarthy hearings (he was Senator Joe McCarthy’s chief counsel) , the Cohn-Schine shenanigans (Roy Cohn and his friend G. David Schine went on a wild 18-day European excursion supposedly looking for Communists at various US agencies and wreaking havoc in diplomatic circles); and post-McCarthy activities with the rich and famous—this play by Joan Beber focuses on only two: his homosexuality and mommy fixation even as he was gay-bashing, and his anti-Communist crusade.
Christopher Daftsios gives a virtuosic performance as the title character, astonishing in its physicality. The entire cast is excellent. Even where concepts didn’t work well, such as the young Roy confronting the dying Roy, the actors are not to blame. Rather, it’s the material and direction.
Marilyn Sokol as Dora, Roy’s mother, is a splendid performer, but with repetition becomes tiresome. Costume changes are insufficient to change the tone but it should be said that Karen Ann Ledger has provided tasteful, timely, appropriate wardrobes.
Ian Gould does well as Julius Rosenberg, but here, too, the repetitiousness becomes trying.
How many times do we have to be hit over the head with the same points? We get it, let’s move on.
There’s one word that sums up this production: frenetic. Bells, whistles, frantic movement and high decibels. The clever scenic design is by Sarah Edkins.
When Nelson Avidon’s droll Ronald Reagan is center stage it is a relief, an oasis amid the frenzied activities.
There is interesting choreography by Lisa Shriver but its effect is diminished with repetition.
Some lovely Puccini and Bizet are played in the background, snippets of Puccini recur. But one must ask why. We’ve been told that Roy Cohn attended opera performances but didn’t stay. Yes, Roy was dying, as was Mimi (La Bohème) but their situations bore few similarities. And the “Habañera” from Carmen?
Rebeca Fong is a charming Lisette, the caregiver/maid; Lee Roy Rogers a credible Barbara Walters; Serge Thony a bravura Serge, Roy’s lover; and Andy Reinhardt, Roy’s energetic younger self.
As the audience was leaving the theater after the performance a young man was heard asking, “Who was Roy Cohn?” The point exactly. For this work to be at all comprehensible one must have at least a rudimentary knowledge of Roy Cohn’s activities, starting with his role as chief counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s committee on investigations. Cohn was the fearsome attack dog in the anti-Communist witch hunt, which destroyed lives, deprived people of livelihoods and drove some to suicide, newscaster Don Hollenbeck and actor Philip Loeb among them. There is one suicide mentioned in the play but the person’s identity is not made clear.
In Bed With Roy Cohn has too much fat, which should be cut, and too little meat, despite the rich vein that could be mined. One must wonder if director Katrin Hilbe was attempting to distract from the paucity of the material chosen with the ceaselessly frantic activity on stage.
In the interest of full disclosure: Sometime during the ’70s I was a guest at a surprise birthday party that Joey Adams was giving for his wife, Cindy. I was seated with Roy Cohn. Unlike the impression given by newspaper photos, he was squeaky clean, well accoutered and civil. He neither shouted nor snarled, unlike the character in the play. However, his handshake was so crushing, I feared I’d never play the piano again.
It should also be noted that Roy Cohn was loyal to his friends, and they returned the favor. Much is made in the play of his disbarment, which occurred the month before he died. He had so many friends in high places it’s telling that he was disbarred only when he was too weak to defend himself or retaliate.
Yes there is a great play in the life of Roy Cohn, but this isn’t it.
In Bed With Roy Cohn is at The Lion Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street (Theater Row) through October 3, 90 minutes, no intermission.
Photos: Russ Rowland