NEW YORK / / Two blocks off Broadway, in a small theater by a drugstore, Jeff Cohen is bringing 1970s Baltimore to life. He's re-created the red clay tennis courts of Druid Hill Park and the wood paneling of a tacky Cold Spring Lane apartment for his new play, Men of Clay.
Cohen, who wrote and directed the play, peppered the script with references to Baltimore landmarks -- places like Attman's Deli, the Federal Hill Park and the Suburban Country Club in Pikesville. When one character refers to Baltimore as the "land of pleasant living," it draws laughter from the black-clad New York audience.
The story revolves around four middle-aged Jewish men who often play tennis together and are suffering from a bout of arrested adolescence. The events that unfold -- from the racial integration of their beloved clay courts to an FBI investigation into one of their own -- force them to grow up, a bit.
Cohen, 48, describes the play as "semi-autobiographical." The main character is his father, Stan "Squeaky" Cohen. The other three principals are the men Stan Cohen played tennis with. There is nothing particularly likable about any of them.
They are, to varying degrees, racist, homophobic and misogynist. Women are "broads" and "fillies," and they refer to African-Americans in derogatory terms.
Cohen says he was not trying to portray these men in a negative light. Far from it -- he reveres them, but he also wanted to tell the truth.
"My father and his friends -- to me, they were just kind of my surrogate uncles," he said. "But from a different perspective, it's a character study. It's a group of guys who are sort of caught in the changing of the culture and, at that time, weren't very well-equipped to deal with it."
He began work on the play seven years ago, as a short piece about a group of guys arguing over which is the better tennis ball -- Wilson or Penn. (Cohen, like his father, prefers Wilsons.) That got Cohen thinking about his father and his father's friends, and the play grew from there.
"Unless we can revisit and examine what essentially is cultural turf wars, then I don't think we can grow and evolve and be better," Cohen said recently over breakfast at a diner near his Upper West Side home.
"I don't think for a minute -- and certainly not today -- that any of these guys are racist in the worst expression of that. But at that time, this was their turf, and they and the characters in the play are very jealous of that turf."
Since its New York opening April 2, the play has received mixed reviews. New York Theatre, an online magazine, called it a "smart and deeply felt play." But another online magazine, TheaterMania.com, called it "rather dismal" and said, "If writer / director Jeff Cohen intended Men of Clay as a tribute to his father, he's done a poor job of it."
The heaviest of hitters -- The New York Times -- weighed in with its review April 4, saying that Cohen "probably has the makings of a decent small play" but criticizing the playwright for stretching a slight premise into nearly 2 1 / 2 hours.
Cohen said he tries not to let the reviews get to him. Over more than 25 years in theater -- most as a director -- he's gotten some very good ones and some very bad ones.
But, he admitted, "This one is especially hard because it's so personal." Not only is Men of Clay the first play Cohen wrote that has been staged, but it's drawn from his life. He's pleased that the men whose lives were the inspiration for the story loved the play.
The critics, he says, are out of his control.
"It's a very dangerous game to be in New York doing theater and to make the approval or disapproval of certain critics be the measuring stick against which you judge yourself," Cohen said. "It's really just opinions."
And even though the Times called the overt racism of the characters "repellent," Cohen says he was simply trying to capture an era and be faithful to his material. Moreover, he wanted to avoid sentimentality.
"I'm not the kind of a theater artist that likes my theater too sweet," he says. "Human beings have flaws, and they do things which in later years they regret. That's what art is supposed to do -- to be an accurate and truthful reflection of that."
The audience at a recent performance grew almost palpably uncomfortable when the play's language regarding race was at its most intense. Afterward, several people said they had trouble relating to the characters.
"Did they have any redeeming qualities other than the fact that they were all buddies?" asked Bunny Miller, 62.
"No," said her husband, Tom Miller, 76.
Men of Clay is expected to run through April 23 in New York, at the June Havoc Theatre on West 36th Street. After that, Cohen hopes it will play at several regional theaters and perhaps come to Baltimore.
Though Cohen left the land of pleasant living more than 30 years ago, he says his heart is still in Baltimore (and he still roots for the Orioles, never the Yankees). Cohen came to New York in 1975, when he graduated from the Friends School in Baltimore and started at New York University.
Since then, he has founded the well-regarded Worth Street Theater Company in New York, which has won or been nominated for a host of major awards, and he has shepherded the careers of young playwrights and actors -- including Laura Linney, whom Cohen cast in a play in 1990.
"Doing my own play has been an exhilarating and scary experience," he said, "because I'm used to championing the work of others."
Now, though, it's his turn.