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A CurtainUp Review
Men of Clay
By Elyse Sommer
The comparisons to the film (part of a Baltimore trilogy that included Liberty Heights and Avalon) don't stop with the set-up of four buddies facing changes in and beyond their neighborhood. Unfortunately, what made Diner an endearing memoir, doesn't carry over to Men of Clay.
The Diner crew was young and silly but likeable, but their type of go-nowhere banter is not very appealing in forty-five-year-old men whose main concern seems to be to guard their bachelor status and cook up cheap schemes for getting "broads" into bed and keeping wedding rings off their fingers.
The one character who's tried marriage in this semi-autobiographical play is Cohen's own dad, Stan "Squeaky" He comes off as a devoted father but a failed husband and a compulsively cheap schlemiel which makes this an odd sort of tribute (the playwright's stated intention).
Another factor working against Men of Clay's putting some of the best features of Diner on stage, is that Levinson's memoir was based on his own experiences whereas Cohen's recollections are second hand -- he was there but not one of the group so that his view is filtered through the lens of an involved observer. This worked for Warren Leight's Side Man, a memoir about his father and his musician friends, but the son was actively and effectively represented by a narrator.
Alas, I'm not finished trotting out unfavorable comparisons that keep Men of Clay from being the endearing or at least attention holding memoir it could and should be. While Diner, shades of Seinfeld, gave the impression of being about nothing, it actually juggled quite a few plot threads. On the other hand, the only plot element in Cohen's Druid Park saga is that Squeaky's stinginess allows him to blind himself to the fact that the good car deal his buddy Danny's cousin dangles before him is a bad deal -- bad enough to have him end up facing a short jail term which gives the guys a chance to prove that there really is some sort of camaraderie to make their insult-trading get-togethers more meaningful.
Cohen, being an experienced playwright was obviously aware that his middle-aged characters were not adolescents likely to mature into adults with less juvenile behavior patterns, and so he establishes them all as more Mamet-like fast-talkers. Consequently, the first scene especially has some Mametiam rhythms, but just barely so. While this is Mamet without a single F-word to offend the cuss-phobic I found the constant "ain'ts" and "don'ts" and racial slurs far more off-putting. One of the underlying themes seems to be that this Baltimore neighborhood is sliding from a poor but nice with amenities into a slum. Growing up before this slide would indicate that Squeaky and his friends still went to public schools where they were forced to learn at least the rudiments of grammar. I'm not familiar with Liberty Park but I know many people of that era who grew up in similar outer borough areas of the Bronx and Brooklyn -- but none who ever talked like this. As for the racist slurs, the civil rights movement was far enough along in 1971 for even those who didn't like seeing their neighborhoods integrated to at least be cautious about uttering words like "schvartze" at the top of their lungs in a public place.
Okay, so these characters aren't particularly sympathetic. Neither were the salesman in Mamet's Glengarry Glen Rose -- but there was an edgy, tacky appeal that made them riveting to listen to and watch. I wish I could say the same for these men or the actors portraying them. Danton Stone's Squeaky is hardly the good looker specified in the script. Steven Rattazzi does indeed have the called for "big personality" but the playwright-director allows him to scream his lines to the point that he is often unbearable.
The best performance comes from Matthew Arkin as the gang's outsider, the sleazy Arnold Dickler, who comes up with the scheme for sharing a luxury apartment and lands Squeaky in jail to save his own gold chain bedecked neck. Costume designer Kim Gill's polyester print shirt for Arkin is on the money, as is the ghastly hot pants outfit worn by Gabrielle Maisels in her one scene at the top of the second act as Squeaky's loving but eventually disgusted girl friend Rachel "Rocky" Gorelick. This scene has its moments but needs a more charismatic actress to make us less antsy about knowing the outcome of Squeaky's legal problems which cropped up at the end of the previous scene.
I've followed and liked Jeff Cohen's work as a playwright and director for years. I very much liked his Americanized Uncle Vanya and The Seagull. and his sensitive direction of Christopher Shinn's Four. Perhaps in this case he's both too close and too far from his subject for a 2-0 set.
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