Brighton Fringe 2010
The Trials of Harvey Matusow
Venue: The Old Courtroom
The Trials of Harvey Matusow is a new play written and performed by Robert Cohen and directed by Ralf Higgins. The Old Courtroom played host to a ninety minute exploration of Harvey Matusow, possibly the world’s greatest liar, a man who donated his archives to the University of Sussex, giving Cohen ready access to the thoughts and actions of a man of endearing infamy.
The lights come up on Matusow leaving America, seeking "the freedom to be me", mounting a personal invasion of Liverpool. It’s the Nineteen Sixties. America’s most notorious liar is the focus of Robert Cohen’s erudite and impressive one-hander which he writes and acts in.
En route for Albion with twenty-one pieces of luggage, bound for swinging London, we meet Harvey, in a play about his adventures in McCarthyism which "sailed on regardless" beyond McCarthy’s death in the late Fifties, and perhaps is afloat even today.
Cohen steps easily into the skin of Matusow. When did the Reds change from being wartime allies to the "unspeakable evil?" Makutsow addresses us directly. We are taken back to episodes in his life but the style is as if the present-located (our present being the ‘sixties) Matusow is guiding us through his own auto-biographical tapestry. As theatrival device it is well crafted and clever, forming one of the cornerstones of the piece’s ability to engage. The others are sharp writing, strong character acting, and much dry humour.
From the revelation of the 205 Reds, to the collaboration of Matusow himself, the American people took McCarthy to their hearts, fueled by the fear of a one-day Stalinist America. It’s February 1950 – Makutsow tells his first lie, part of a chain of deceit that eventually exposed and brought down the system of paid informants in the USA. This is also a play about the purgatives qualities of guilt, and Matusow attempt to purge himself in front of we, the audience. Or does he? It it all just another lie?
The meticulous research is all over this piece and sometimes it invades the script a little too much, As theatre it is a strong character study and Robert Cohen brings Matusow to intimate life from the first moment and holds him convincingly to the end. In the character Cohen has portrayed, there are resonances with Kurt Vonnegut’s fictional Howard Campbell in Mother Night, which I think is high praise indeed!
Cohen describes McCarthy as an innocent, for whom it was all a game. All of his activities – Blacklisting, Informing, being an "Expert" witness, sit merrily alongside "working for the nicest son of a bitch you ever met – Joe himself"
The only problem with this 90 minute monologue is, though its length is largely justified by the intriguing nature of the content, though the script is compelling, the story at times chilling, informative, cuttingly funny, a little research-heavy, the the staging is a little too vocal-delivery based; the "episodes" aren’t particularly imaginatively staged, the storytelling style is a little too physically static; it can feel more of a lecture than a dramatic monologue at times. This would be remedied either by a shorter script or by entering more visually into the stories and evoking them through more ambitious stagecraft. The soundscape doesn’t quite harmonise with the live theatre in the Old Courtoom venue. If the aim is simplicity, the way the simplicity is physically realised doesn’t hold the drama well enough all the way through.
Matusow returns to New York, no longer expecting either "forgive" nor "forget" from America, despite his five years in prison. And of course he never gives up lying.
Cohen is to be congratulated on a fine piece of writing that is full of wit, irony and also for a top-drawer portroyal of Matusow. Despite the few comments above, this piece will, I hope, develop just that bit further and become an outstanding example of a longer one-man play. As it stands at the moment, it is still one of the highlights of my Fringe and strongly recommended.