Worth It: Cohen and Fineman Keep an Artistic Flame Burning Downtown

Worth It: Cohen and Fineman Keep an Artistic Flame Burning Downtown Worth Street Theater producer Carol Fineman had to deal with a messy pie problem after a recent performance of the one-act play fest Snapshots 2000.
Carol Fineman and Jeff Cohen.
Carol Fineman and Jeff Cohen. (Photo by Photo by Carol Rosegg)

Worth Street Theater producer Carol Fineman had to deal with a messy pie problem after a recent performance of the one-act play fest Snapshots 2000.

The closing piece, a bizarre Peter Hedges support-group spoof called The Age of Pie, requires hands-on—as well as face and tongue—pie contact, and on this night all she could find was meringue, which left a gooier heap on the stage than the cream pies she had been using.

That means more work for the bubbly, talkative Fineman, who counts clean-up duties as one of her multifarious responsibilities with the proudly small-scale theatre company. It's a marked contrast from her more conventional day job as press representative for the Public Theater. When asked what induced her partnership with Worth Street founder and artistic director Jeff Cohen, she quips, with mock woe, "Insanity."

But who says madness can't be embraced. Cohen and Fineman advocate the straightforward simplicity that characterizes Worth Street's bare-bones productions. "Jeff and I have very similar philosophies about what theatre is, what it can be, what it should be," says Fineman a few days later over morning tea at Starbucks. "That you can produce really quality work without huge budgets. Also, we both really are drawn to intimacy."

Cohen, who characterizes Worth Street as a mom and pop operation, also has his share of odd jobs at the theatre, which include calling light and sound cues when there's no stage manager. But his chief duties are as director and, occasionally, adapter. Four years ago his contemporary rendition of the Greek tragedy Orestes became Orestes: I Murdered My Mother; the chorus transformed into zealous tabloid TV journalists. In his hands, Chekhov's Uncle Vanya was adapted into Uncle Jack, set in present-day West Virginia; The Seagull acquired the subtitle The Hamptons: 1990s; while the German classic Woyzeck became Whoa-Jack! set in the South in 1960.

In five years Worth Street has built a reputation as a theatrical risk-taker, staging an eclectic mix of productions that haven't all been critical darlings, but were consistently recognized for their unique vision and sensibility.

Besides Cohen's adaptations, the oeuvre has included a revival of an obscure Tennessee Williams' play, Small Craft Warnings; the site-specific The Coyote Bleeds, a look at a self-destructive cop, for which a theatre was transformed into a police precinct; and the annual Snapshots series, an evening of one-acts by a combination of established and up-and-coming scribes. This year's playwright roster includes Romulus Linney, Robert O'Hara (Insurrection: Making History) and Cohen himself.

But Fineman and Cohen say that it's the actors that are the impetus behind productions. "We're very actor-driven in terms of how we choose things," Fineman says. "Part of the reason behind Snapshots is to give actors a chance to work in a very basic way. This year, in particular, it's a really nice mix of various levels of training and expertise. That mixture really lifts everybody, and you see the effects in terms of performances and attitudes."

Many Snapshots performers are Worth Street vets — Gerald Anthony, Queen Esther, Paul Whitthorne, to name a few. The common ground they share, according to Cohen, is a strong sense of self and idiosyncratic styles.

"I find that a lot of the trained actors out there are all the same," he says. "There's a lot of blandness. Sometimes I think that it takes the young actors that come out of Juilliard five years to get rid of what they've taught them."

Although they share similar tastes in theatre, Cohen and Fineman present contrasting personas. Fineman, who hails from Philadelphia, is the sharply dressed, black-clad urban professional, while Cohen, a Baltimore native whose brown beard is dotted with specks of gray, is more subdued and casual, wearing jeans and a gray T-shirt. But his eyes brighten and he shifts into overdrive when discussing his work and explaining why staging plays in an 80-seat theatre suits him.

Fifteen years ago, Cohen ran the Rapp Arts Center on East Fourth Street (now the Connelly Theatre), where he also produced theatre, and grew weary of the bureaucracy that came with running an arts organization. (Eventually he was evicted by his landlord, the New York Archdiocese, in a headline-grabbing case, after staging the play The Cardinal Detoxes, featuring a ranting, drunken clergyman.)

"I tried to have a big board of directors and do a lot of fundraising, but that becomes what you do," Cohen laments. "You have to make a choice between whether you're going to go full force into making it a nonprofit business or whether you're going to be an artist."

A large chunk of Worth Street's funding presently comes from a multiyear grant—which Cohen hopes will be renewed after this year— from the Harold & Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust. No longer on the street that inspired its name, the company has leased the Tribeca Playhouse, which they rent out when they're not producing.

Given the unconventional work that Worth Street has built its reputation around, its next production may seem somewhat out of character: a revival of Wendy Wasserstein's long-running 1980s Off-Broadway comedy Isn't It Romantic?, a look at the love and career pursuits of two young New York women.

"There's a wistfulness and also an irony in the title," Cohen says. "New York is both limitless possibilities and also a really difficult place. We're actually going to be talking to some commercial producers because I think it also can be very commercially viable."

Commercial? But what about the artistic value of intimacy and risk-taking?

"That's not the engine, but it just happens to be the result," Cohen says about the commercial potential of Isn't It Romantic?

Which segues nicely into a conversation about Worth Street's future. In 10 years, would Cohen still like to be running an Off-Off-Broadway theatre, or does he hope to work his way up the Off-Broadway ladder? He ponders the question.

"My dream as an artist is to be able to support myself as a director or a playwright with commercial productions, but to always have a small space away from all that other stuff," he responds, recalling the thrill of directing an outdoor production of A Midsummer Night's Dream for larger crowds at New Jersey's Princeton Rep this summer.

So there may be more pie-mopping in his and Fineman's future.

— Diane Snyder