CultureJew: Josh Cohen and Torch Song on Stage

Two Bergen County-raised theater makers have created a sweet and winning musical comedy currently at the Westside Theatre on 43rd Street. “The Other Josh Cohen” tells the tale of a lovable schnook who just can’t get a break, until he does. We know he does because there are two versions of the schnook on stage–the before and the after, so to speak. The “before” Josh Cohen is a little dumpier, with a mustache that seems to belong to a different era. The “after” version has lost the mustache, substituting hipper stubble, and looks a bit sleeker and less tormented. He hasn’t given up the red-checked shirt, however.

David Rossmer, formerly of River Edge, co-wrote the book, music, and lyrics with Steve Rosen, who plays Josh Cohen. (Rossmer plays the “after” Josh, who acts as narrator.) Rossmer did the orchestrations with his boyhood friend Dan Lipton, also from River Edge. Both Lipton and Rossmer families have been members of the Jewish Community Center in Paramus for decades and Dan and David had their bar mitzvahs there. The two met Steve Rosen at French Woods performing-arts summer camp in upstate New York. The three men have a long list of credits: Rosen has appeared in “Spamalot,” “The Farnsworth Invention,” and “Guys and Dolls,” all on Broadway; Rossner originated the role of Ted in “Peter and the Starcatcher” and appeared in “Titanic” and “Fiddler on the Roof”; a pianist and composer, Lipton conducted “The Last Ship” by Sting on Broadway and has toured with Broadway stars Kelli O’Hara and Audra McDonald. Lipton and Rossner are now collaborating on writing the show “Monopoly” for Broadway, with a book by Rick Elice of “Jersey Boys.”  

Josh’s life takes a strange turn when a letter arrives in the mail from a return address in Florida. Inside is a very generous check. Josh can’t figure out who the sender–Irma Cohen–is, but deduces she must be a relative he’s forgotten. That launches one of the show’s most entertaining songs, “Samuel Cohen’s Family Tree.” replete with a dancing Hasid, where every person manages to find a partner, “except me,” moans Josh. As Josh begins to unravel the mystery of the letter, he faces a moral quandary. The resolution underscores his–and the show’s–essential menschlichkeit.  

As directed by Hunter Foster, “The Other Josh Cohen” bounces from song to song with high energy and infectious humor. The very able cast plays multiple roles as well as their own instruments, and the costume and wig designers do great work. One of the show’s greatest virtues is its modesty; it’s not a theatrical groundbreaker but uses its small scale to great advantage to deliver an enjoyable and funny 90 minutes.

Another funny and touching play is “Torch Song,” which boasts a not-to-be-missed lead performance by Michael Urie as Arnold Beckoff, a drag queen whose indomitable search for real love goes on for a decade. Arnold meets the super goyish Ed in a gay bar in 1971 and is crushed when Ed distances himself after a glorious few months to begin dating a woman. They meet again in 1974 when Arnold has a new boyfriend and Ed is married to Laurel. The last act takes place in 1980, when Arnold has taken in a gay foster son and Ed has separated from his wife.

The play is a distillation of “Torch Song Trilogy” by Harvey Fierstein, originally produced on Broadway in 1982 at four hours long with Fierstein in the lead. Urie is mesmerizing as the effeminate, whiny, funny, needy Arnold, who ultimately wins us over with his honesty and courage. “All I need is your love and respect,” he tells his mother, wonderfully portrayed by Mercedes Ruehl, and that’s what he wants from his lovers too. Not many people can be as forthright as Arnold, or as self-aware. Urie takes a character that could easily be a cartoon and invests him with a full range of emotion. He is hilarious and heartbreaking. The rest of the cast, aside from Ruehl, is not as strong, but it’s Arnold’s play and he carries it.  I don’t know why this show is closing at the beginning of January, but you should definitely see it if you can.

When You’re Sick, Watch TV

Laid up with a long-lasting virus over the week of Thanksgiving, I watched a lot of TV. (it’s hard to read anything serious when you’re sick, I find.)  Lucky for me, a lot of excellent new movies are streaming on Netflix. “Private Life” is Tamara Jenkins’ latest film, and it stars one of my favorite actresses, Kathryn Hahn. What can’t this woman do? She was wonderful as the rabbi in “Transparent” and I even love her as the smart-mouth mom in some car commercial. Here she plays a member of the Brooklyn creative class, married to Paul Giamatti. They are in their 40s and trying to have a baby via IVF, a process that is frustrating and humiliating and expensive. Jenkins captures all of that while never succumbing to glib sarcasm or moony gushing. When their college-dropout step niece shows up on their doorstep, they start to think of surrogacy. Maybe that might work. The film treats all the characters with understanding and respect, even when they don’t deserve it, and “Private Life” is that rare joy, a comedy with a sad, loving heart.

The latest Coen brothers effort, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” also premiered on Netflix, but its heart is hardly loving. Six stories make up this anthology feature, one meaner than the next, but all filled with the Coens’ mordant wit and their signature great performances. The standouts are Tim Blake Nelson as a singing gunslinger, Tom Waits as a gold prospector, Harry Melling as a freak-show actor, and Tyne Daly as a priggish stagecoach passenger. Each episode takes the form of a different western genre–the wagon train story, the frontier justice story, the lonely prospector, etc–and the last one acts as a coda. The movie is funny, as the Coens’ movies almost always are, and beautiful, but seemed nastier than usual to me.

Foreign Thrillers Are the Best

Warrior” is a six-episode series set in Denmark about a veteran’s attempt to infiltrate a Copenhagen biker gang. He’s doing it for the detective widow of a comrade for whose death he feels responsible. The psychology is shallow but the action is tight, and I can’t get enough of Nordic noir. Also, the lead is played by Dar Salim, an actor I first saw in another much lighter series, “Dicte.” There, he plays the boyfriend of an investigative journalist who is always getting in over her head. He’s good, and though his filmography says he was in “Game of Thrones,” I don’t remember him.

I zoomed through “The Bodyguard,” also on Netflix, a series that features another GOT alum: James Madden played Robb Stark and I would never have recognized him if I wasn’t tipped off. Here, he does a great job in the sex scenes as well as portraying a haunted, PTSD-afflicted veteran who is assigned to guard the British Home Secretary, who just happens to be pretty sexy herself. The series is filled with sharp turnarounds and plot surprises and is totally bingeable. In the UK, where it ran weekly on television, it got a bigger audience than “Downton Abbey.” It’s a lot more interesting, in my opinion.  

Almost through the second season of “The Marvelous Mrs Maisel” on Amazon and I can’t remember what I liked about the first one. I recall it as amusing and fun for all the period details (like longline bras), but it can’t have been as irritating as the current season, can it? I hated the first three episodes and although it’s become less objectionable, I think this is it for me. The worst is that for a show about a barrier-busting comedian, it’s not at all funny. Hardly a giggle to be had.


About the Author
Miriam Rinn is currently a freelance writer based in NJ, where she has lived for several decades. She worked as a children's book editor, a freelance writer and editor, and a communications manager for a nonprofit organization. She is the author of the children's novel "The Saturday Secret," which was recently selected by PJ Our Way. She has two married sons and four granddaughters.
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