"Real power does not come from people who hold office. It comes from the ability to get things done," Roy Cohn once said. That quote has been interpolated into Joan Beber’s In Bed With Roy Cohn, now making its New York debut at Theatre Row. The play certainly captures Cohn’s maniacal drive to "get things done" and crush anyone standing in his way, though we’re never quite sure to what ends.
Cohn was a Manhattan attorney, closeted homosexual, and virulent anti-Communist, perhaps best known to theater audiences through Tony Kushner’s scathing immortalization in Angels in America. In political and legal circles, he holds the dubious distinction of prosecuting the last federal trial for treason that resulted in an execution — that of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg in 1951.
Beber’s play Ethel Sings was also about that trial. It’s clearly a subject of great fascination for the playwright, though her personal proximity to it seems to have prevented her from reaching beyond a superficial assessment of the characters involved. (Beber is distantly related to the Rosenbergs; her father, a prominent Nebraska attorney, attempted to get President Eisenhower to intervene on their behalf before they were ultimately executed by electric chair.) This was as true in Ethel Sings as it is here, even though In Bed With Roy Cohn is a far more satisfying theatrical experience.
It takes place in a kind of dream world (artfully crafted by set designer Sarah Edkins): It appears to be the bedroom of a sleek Manhattan high-rise apartment. A massive bed with charcoal sheets dominates the room, its angles askew like something in a Tim Burton film. Roy Cohn (Christopher Daftsios) occupies this bed, receiving imaginary visitors like his lover Serge (the beefy Serge Thony), Ronald Reagan (an appropriately dotty Nelson Avidon), and Julius Rosenberg (a somewhat sanctimonious Ian Gould). His maid, Lisette (the feisty Rebeca Fong), cleans up around them. They’re all rough caricatures and exist primarily to draw from Cohn’s endless well of abuse and insecurity. Meanwhile, Cohn’s younger self (Andy Reinhardt) silently observes everything, often from a small room that floats high above the stage.
Katrin Hilbe directs it all with the precision of a ballet master, the actors leaping across stage, hustling in and out of new costumes (stylish and essential design by Karen Ann Ledger). Gertjan Houben’s projections illuminate key moments and add to the overall schizophrenic feel of the mise-en-scène. Everything is executed flawlessly, even though not all of it seems necessary. The frenetic onstage activity ranges from dramatically illuminating (a wild night at the disco) to distasteful (Julius Rosenberg doing the electric slide).
It’s formally very similar to Ethel Sings, but it works a bit better here considering Cohn’s restive nature. "I don’t have the greatest attention span," Cohn admits on a date to the opera with his beard, Barbara Walters (Lee Roy Rogers). Truly, his mind leaps from one topic to the next like a child with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
Unfortunately, Cohn’s motivation for all his fevered activity is somewhat obscured by the play’s muscular theatricality. Beber offers a suspiciously Freudian rationale, suggesting that an overbearing Jewish mother (Marilyn Sokol) drove him there through her bipolar fits of coddling and disapproval. It feels too facile an explanation, especially in its treatment of Cohn’s misanthropic homosexuality. Upon seeing her son embracing another man, Cohn’s mother screeches, "Filthy dirty filthy dirty!" She’s not so much a mother as she is a wicked witch from a Grimm fairy tale.
For her part, Sokol (Old Jews Telling Jokes) plays that witch quite well. Painted like a Lucy Ricardo-themed clown, she pops out of nowhere to say things like, "My son never calls, I’m at death’s door…But I’m very well thank you." Put this lady in a Stephen King movie.
It is Daftsios, however, who delivers the standout performance of the show. In addition to looking and sounding eerily like Cohn (including some Emperor Palpatine-like bags drawn around his eyes), Daftsios encapsulates his unique rage and megalomania. This is a man whose claws are out at all times.
How Cohn got that way and what it means for our country is very much an open question at the end of In Bed With Roy Cohn. Is this the dark side of American ambition? Beber seems content with the portrayal of a delicious villain, leaving us to ponder the wider implications of his legacy. And make no mistake: Cohn left a lasting legacy on American society. He was a man with an extensive list of powerful friends and clients, one of whom is currently leading the race for the GOP nomination for President of the United States.