Uptown and downtown with the Worth Street Theater's Jeffrey Cohen.
"I certainly never intended to have a downtown theater," he says. "I went to New York University and studied acting with Stella Adler in the '70s but I decided I wasn't really cut out for an acting career, so I applied to Yale's directing program. However, I didn't have the $40,000 yearly tuition. Instead, I used the money I did have to produce and direct on my own. In the early '80s, I directed the first American production ever of the John Fletcher play The Tamer Tamed downtown at the Westbeth. No big splash, but it was a good experience and it began my entrepreneurial training."
For Cohen, the next logical step seemed to be his own theater. "I figured I'd find a basement somewhere in Alphabet City," he laughs. Instead, and completely by chance, in 1985 he wound up with 50,000 square feet at the Holy Redeemer School on East 4th Street, where he founded the RAPP Arts Center (currently the home of the Connolly Theater). "All I wanted was a place to figure out how to be a director," he says. "Eventually I was operating the RAPP on a budget of a million dollars a year."
Soon, the RAPP was a happening East Village space: the Bang on a Can Music Festival started there, La Gran Scena Opera made a guest appearance, there was a Film Festival...and Cohen got to do several pieces that he's still "very proud of," including Len Jenkin's A Country Doctor and a hip-hop version of As You Like It. "We also did the first production of one of my own adaptations there," he happily remembers. "Laura Linney made her New York stage debut in The Seagull: The Hamptons: 1990s. Somehow, in the process, I went from being an arts advocate to being a landlord."
By late 1990, the RAPP Arts Center had come to an end due to a censorship controversy over a play called The Cardinal Detoxes by Cohen's good friend Tom Disch, a former critic for The Nation. Famed civil libertarian lawyers Bill Kunstler and Ron Kuby handled the case. By then, Cohen reveals, "Large chunks of my life had withered and died, including both the RAPP Center and my marriage." So when a friend at Cal Arts called to offer him a teaching position, Cohen said yes and soon found himself in Los Angeles. Again by accident, the teaching job fell through. Cohen became a vice president at Epic Films, where one of his projects was the Al Pacino film Carlito's Way. "I was living the L.A. life style," he says. "I had an agent, a beautiful house on a hill, I'd done a screenplay of my Seagull, and I was even directing waiver productions in what passed for theater in L.A. in those days." One such production, Tony DiMurro's cop drama Coyote Bleeds, was so critically and financially successful that Cohen decided to bring it to N.Y.C. for an Off-Broadway run.
Cohen continues the story: "I had a loft in Tribeca long before it was called Tribeca, and I'd held on to it. Then I found a storefront around the corner on Worth Street and met Carol Fineman [publicist for the Public Theater, with whom he formed a theatrical and personal partnership]. Just before Ben Brantley became the chief drama critic of the Times, he saw Coyote Bleeds and wrote us a public love letter. I'd planned to go back to L.A when the show was over but I was so much happier cleaning toilets in our theater here that I never did. We named ourselves the Worth Street Theater, for obvious reasons. We were nomads for a few years, playing at other downtown spaces until we found our current space on Reade Street--which we christened The Tribeca Playhouse, also for obvious reasons."
Cohen has remained a fixture of the downtown scene. He has garnered excellent reviews while building regular audiences for his eclectic programming, which mixes rescued plays that were not particularly successful in their initial runs (e.g., Tennessee Williams' Small Craft Warnings and Wendy Wasserstein's Isn't It Romantic?) with showcases of his own modern American adaptations of classic European works. Georg Buchner's Woyzeck became Cohen's Whoa-Jack, the story of a downtrodden black soldier; Chekov's Uncle Vanya, with its action moved down South, became Uncle Jack. The latter starred Emmy winning former soapster Gerald Anthony, who also plays the title role in Tartuffe. Cohen has rewritten the Molière play as a screwball comedy set in 1930's Manhattan. Anthony's co-stars include two-time Tony nominee Crista Moore (Gypsy and Big) as Elmire, wife to Orgon, played by actor/playwright Keith Reddin.
Tartuffe happened not so much by accident as by disaster. The Tribeca Playhouse, just five blocks north of the World Trade Center, was booked solid before September 11. "At first, we didn't know if we'd ever be able to go back," says Cohen thoughtfully. "Our productions were all canceled, our theater was empty, and we wanted to do something to help." Cohen's idea of on-site stage door canteen for the emergency workers and construction crews quickly grew into a free, weekly event on Monday nights. Host Queen Esther--a Cohen protege from Whoa-Jack! days and a featured member on Bravo's reality show, The It Factor)--introduced talents like Tony winners Daisy Eagen, Cady Huffman, and Kristin Chenoweth, comic actors Mario Cantone and Lea DeLaria, musical theater performers Norm Lewis and Darius DeHaas, and dozens more. "Then, one day, I walking through a neighborhood book store, still in a daze like everybody else," Cohen relates. "My hand fell on a copy of Tartuffe and I thought, 'That's what we need to do: We need to laugh.' So I bought every translation I could find--Richard Wilbur's is still the gold standard--and got to work. I put every joke and piece of shtick I could think of into my version. It's Preston Sturges meets the Marx Brothers, and there's not a serious moment in it.