FringeReview UK 2017
Men Without Friends is a triptych of three monodramas written by Rob Cohen. Mounted generically as at the HoveGrown Festival, they’re hosted by SweetVenues at the Dukebox. The Trials of Harvey Matusow, the first dating originally from 2010, is directed by Ralf Higgins, lit and technically supervised by Jenny Rowe. Through this team collaboration it returns with a greater presence.
Rob Cohen’s mounted his three monodramas generically as Men Without Friends at the HoveGrown Festival, hosted by SweetVenues at the Dukebox. Directed by Ralf Higgins, lit and technically supervised by Jenny Rowe, it returns with a greater presence through this team collaboration.
Seeing these plays run together heightens appreciation for Cohen’s gift in portraying unlikeable loners. He’s written very different dramas but the first piece to be written here, The Trials of Harvey Matusow, defines a new voice he’s explored with sardonic persistence since. Of the three it’s at once the least fictionalised, most lying and most factual.
Harvey Matusow (1926-2002) really existed, though Cohen likes to destabilize the witness here of a man looking back at his complicity in and subversion of the McCarthyite witch hunts of 1950-55 – from London’s Swinging Sixties and Seventies. Cohen establishes through the shifty, wheedling persuasive voice of Matusaow the general paranoia long before McCarthy, indeed points out the famous Communist-denouncing Senator only started the gimmick up to secure re-election. Both Bobb Kennedy and Richard Nixon wanted in. By 1950 there was already sufficient anti-Communism for the witch hunts to merely confirm what people had been acting on. A chilling example is the riot against people listening to Paul Robeson. And McCarthy? ‘The nicest son of a bitch you could meet’ a man genuinely puzzled that people dislike him for denouncing them and destroying their careers.
Matusow began an idealistic communist out of the army, became vaguely disillusioned, turned informer, made up material when cornered, reneged on it, denounced it all in a 1955 book, and made the mistake of taking on McCarthy’s lawyer Number Two, Roy Coen. It landed him in jail. Cohen shows through a sift of monologues Matusow’s disarming honesty as he tells his lies, that essentially he couldn’t bear to be left out of account. He wanted to be seen to testify, yet he didn’t want to testify at all if it meant shopping old friends. Yet again sometimes it’s just business and he has no qualms at all. Matusow’s engaging sociopathy swims in and out of focus. He’s impossible to either love or hate, but fascinates.
Cohen, adopting different hats and times as he glances up from his 1967, or 1971 self, relates a parallel existence with his fifth wife Annie, the composer/musician using glass instruments and sessions with John Cage (he of 4‘ 32” Silent Piece) artistic activities worlds away from the politicised arena he once bestrode.
Matusow correlated much artistic activity, including the whole arts project under the New Deal, but when told he had to surrender his material to someone else, because his name stank, he did something extraordinary. Such creative or re-creative gambits stud the later Matusow, suggest invention of every kind is what keeps him alive. Lying, being pressured to go further than intended, is just one example of how a creative endeavour got out of hand or rather his hands. As analogue to creative endeavour it’s an object lesson.
Cohen’s gestures are beautifully detailed, as when he explains the exquisite difference between House and Senate (McCarthy never sat on the infamous House because he was from a different elected chamber). Or when he relates how outclassed he was as a liar taking on a lawyer (Roy Coen). These, and his luckless glass harmonica demonstrations (or hand-out ads for his Jew’s Harp Band) are wincingly funny, with the best interaction yet seen from this artist.
Informative, infuriatingly endearing it’s also Cohen’s first masterpiece, however small-scaled. For that reason too, it holds a particular freshness, a discovery of a remarkable voice. Or two.