The notorious attorney Roy Cohn (Barry Pearl), onetime counsel for Sen. Joseph McCarthy, deals with his demons in Joan Beber’s surreal play, “Hunger: In Bed With Roy Cohn,” currently running at the Odyssey Theatre. Beber, who is having her first production in Los Angeles at age 78, places Cohn in a state of limbo, a purgatory of the mind, where he is nurtured by a sexy maid (Presciliana Esparolini) and haunted by significant figures from his past, including his mother, Dora (Cheryl David); hotel heir G. David Schine (Tom Galup); Ronald Reagan (David Sessions); Barbara Walters (Liza de Weerd), who remained a loyal friend because Cohn had once helped her father; and convicted spy Julius Rosenberg (Jon Levenson).
Cohn was brilliant, handsome — at least in his youth — loyal to his close friends, and, reportedly, could be extremely charming. He was also known as a merciless prosecutor and litigator, a bigot, a snob and a closeted gay man living in denial. He even denied to his death that he had AIDS, the disease that killed him in 1986.
He is best remembered as lead counsel during the Army-McCarthy hearings. The Army had accused Cohn of exerting pressure to obtain special treatment for Schine, who had been drafted. Cohn and McCarthy countered that Schine was being held hostage in retaliation for McCarthy’s inquiry into suspected Communist infiltration of the Army. It was also widely rumored, though never proven, that Schine and Cohn were lovers, but Schine subsequently lived a heterosexual life, married and had six children.
Prior to his work with McCarthy, Cohn had been a prosecutor in the 1951 espionage trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and claimed to have been instrumental in having the couple executed. Ethel’s brother later admitted that he had lied when testifying against the Rosenbergs, and a co-defendant in the case stated after 18 years in prison that Julius had been a spy, but Ethel had not.
Beber learned years after the Rosenberg executions that her father, a Republican activist in Omaha, Neb., wanted to help Ethel, who was his distant cousin, but had to keep it very quiet to protect his career as a lawyer. He tried to get then-Sen. Dwight Griswold of Nebraska to intervene with President Dwight D. Eisenhower, to no avail.
“He also formed a committee with other people in Omaha who felt that the Rosenbergs were being targeted,” Beber said. “Then he went to visit Ethel in prison about two weeks before she died. He asked her what he could do for her, and she said, ‘Tell my sons to change their name.’ ”
Beber said she knew little about Cohn or the Red Scare until she began researching the Rosenberg case 20 years ago for her play “Ethel Sings.”
“I was very intrigued that this guy who was Jewish would be so instrumental in causing the death of the Rosenbergs, and I couldn’t understand how a person with any kind of conscience could do something like that, especially someone who was Jewish. I was intrigued with that, [and] I wanted to know if there was a reason behind it.”
Beber, who is Jewish, said that once she began working on her current endeavor, she watched several dramatic depictions of Cohn.
“I always saw him portrayed as kind of a one-sided person and just evil to the core,” she observed. “I wanted to see another side of him, and then I started reading many, many books.
“The more I read, the more I realized what he was up against growing up … being gay in such a repressed society, so I wanted to present another aspect of him.”
Beber’s play, though not strictly a musical, has characters bursting into song and dance, with choreography by Kay Cole.
“I loved the fact that [Beber] was very daring and very theatrical,” said director Jules Aaron, who described his close collaboration with the playwright.
“We developed several different things about the show, which are pivotal. I think we both wanted to understand why [Cohn] was who he was, without being sentimental or sympathetic toward him, but we wanted people to connect enough with him that they would stay with the play. That’s the trick when you have a Richard III, or someone who’s something of a villain in history. You want the audience to have some feelings about the character.”
But Aaron didn’t want Pearl to sentimentalize the character.
“I kept saying to [Pearl], ‘You don’t need the audience to sympathize with you. Keep him strong.’ ”
The director feels that the key to Cohn is his relationship with his devouring mother, Dora, who came from a wealthy background.
“If he had had another mother, would he have been different when he got older, since we’re sort of products of our family, and, of course, our social situation? That, to me, was the main factor in presenting someone who was a product of, and I don’t mean this in a sexual way, an incestuous relationship with his mother.”
From Pearl’s perspective, Dora is someone who keeps her son dependent on her, even as she is destroying him.
“She’s like the ultimate stage mother. There are moments when I say, ‘Why do you treat me this way; and my dad (who was a respected judge), you always put him down.’ At the same time, I ask ‘What should I do, Mama?’
“I’m learning from her. I get my bigotry from her. She has a speech about ‘every wop and spic,’ you know, she goes on and on.”
Pearl continued, “She was an elitist, and [Cohn] learned a lot. He says, ‘I was born at the wrong time to the wrong mom.’ She had a huge influence on him. That wasn’t very much explored in any of the pieces that I saw, or any of the history.”
Pearl also described Cohn as a self-hating Jew who denies his Jewish background and, at one point in the play, refers to Jews as “kikes.”
But, Pearl said, the playwright does explore the possibility of redemption by creating a younger, more innocent version of Cohn. This alter ego is a graceful figure, continually beckoning to the older Roy.
“The young Roy, throughout the play, prods the audience and prods the older Roy to ‘get going’ and ‘get up and move ahead,’ Beber explained. “He tries to show him the way, the potential for what he could have been, but the audience is left not knowing which direction he chooses, and whether he comes to any important realizations about how he has lived.”
In an aside, she added, “I think he doesn’t, but that’s beside the point.”
“Hunger: In Bed With Roy Cohn” continues through March 11 at the Odyssey Theatre.
“Hunger: In Bed With Roy Cohn” runs Saturday, January 21 – Sunday, March 11, 2012 at the Odyssey Theatre (2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90025). Showtimes are Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m.; Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets for Friday are $25.00; Saturday and Sunday are $30.00. For more information, please call (310) 477-2055 or visit www.odysseytheatre.com.