Daniel Ahearn, Steven Rattazzi, Danton Stoneand Victor Barbella in Men of Clay
(Photo © Kate Raudenbush)
Daniel Ahearn, Steven Rattazzi, Danton Stone
and Victor Barbella in Men of Clay
(Photo © Kate Raudenbush)
If writer/director Jeff Cohen intended Men of Clay as a tribute to his father, he's done a poor job of it. This rather dismal drama is set in Baltimore in the early 1970s and revolves around the author's father, Stan "Squeaky" Cohen (Danton Stone), who's part of a small clique of Jewish men that meets regularly at Druid Hill Park to play on the red clay tennis courts there.

The actual plot of the piece, which involves Stan being caught up in a stolen car ring scam and facing hard time as a result, could make for an intriguing play, but Men of Clay is so disjointed that it's nearly impossible to appreciate anything about it. Cohen's dialogue is often stilted and overly expository. The characters, though based upon actual friends of his father, seem more cartoons than flesh and blood people.

It's hard to feel much empathy for any of them. Ira Farber (Steven Rattazzi) is a loud-mouthed bigot who lashes out at his friends almost as vociferously as he complains about the "schwartzers" (a derogatory Yiddish term for African Americans) whose presence is changing the old neighborhoods. Rattazzi plays Ira at such an annoyingly high pitch -- think Nathan Lane, but without the charm -- that it's painful to watch and listen to him. On the other hand, Nate Askin (Dan Ahearn) is such a cipher that it's difficult to know what to make of him. With his understated mannerisms, Ahearn is a nice contrast to the manic Rattazzi, yet he fails to give the audience anything concrete to latch onto. Victor Barbella plays Danny Dickler as a somewhat dim-witted, overage schoolboy. Stone has a likeable but vacant persona as Stan; he seldom makes eye contact with any of his fellow actors, instead gazing blankly out into the audience. This makes it seem as though he's not all there mentally, and his grinning when insulted by Rattazzi's Ira only adds to that impression.

Matthew Arkin plays Danny's cousin Arnold, the one who gets Stan in trouble in regard to the stolen car. The actor effectively inhabits this sleazy character but can't quite overcome the limitations of the writing. Gabrielle Maisels rounds out the cast as Rachel "Rocky" Gorelick, Stan's ex-girlfriend with whom he attempts a reconciliation.

The scene between Rachel and Stan at the beginning of the second act is quite poignant, yet it feels like it's from another play, introducing as it does a whole new set of circumstances without directly referencing what has come immediately before it. Though the reasons for this eventually become clear, it's still an awkward scene, even if it does help to flesh out the character of Stan Cohen by illustrating how his inability to adjust to change or to spend money for the things he wants most in life are his tragic flaws. Maisels portrays the one sympathetic character in the entire play, making palpable the hurt and disappointment that Rachel feels as Stan keeps saying and doing the wrong things. Unfortunately, this scene is also overwritten, and the direction is rather static; the two characters often face away from each other during their long, heartfelt speeches.

Kim Gill has done some nice work on the costumes, which reference the fashions of the 1970s without appearing too ludicrous. (She has also made sure that the tennis players' white shoes show evidence of red clay dust from their exertions on the courts.) While the show has a set, no one has taken credit for designing it; this might explain why it's little more than functional and takes such a long time to transition from one locale to another. But even a great set wouldn't be enough to recommend this production.