The Hunger of Roy Cohn, As Told by Beber and Aaron
by PATRICIA FOSTER RYE
Barry Pearl as Roy Cohn in “Hunger: In Bed with Roy Cohn”; photo by Michael Lamont
Joan Beber received a B.A. in English from Northwestern University at age 21 — and an M.F.A in playwriting from the University of Southern California 46 years later, at age 67. The premiere of her first fully produced play, Hunger: In Bed with Roy Cohn, which she wrote at age 73, is about to open at the Odyssey Theatre, directed by the award-winning Jules Aaron.
Described as a fantasy play with music, the plot centers on the life of Roy Cohn, the attorney who helped prosecute Ethel Rosenberg for espionage and then became famous as chief counsel to the U.S. Senate Permanent Investigations Subcommittee, where he helped his boss Sen. Joseph McCarthy look for Communists. He later became a celebrity attorney, but he was disbarred for ethical lapses shortly before dying from AIDS in 1986.
Director Jules Aaron, photo by Michael Lamont
“How I think of it as the director,” Aaron says, “is that we’re in some kind of purgatory in Roy’s mind. The play actually takes place in a 24-hour period where we move in and out of different time periods, ranging from the ’50s to the present day. Part of the fun of the play is that since we’re in his mind, it allows us to make different leaps that we wouldn’t be able to in a strictly biographical play. It starts with him as a young attorney and moves through his death from AIDS. What Joan has created is a kind of fluid structure that allows us to move through time and place in a very unusual and theatrical way.”
The historical characters in the play include not only Cohn, played by Barry Pearl — but also Ronald Reagan, G. David Schine (the Cohn friend whose Army service became a point of contention in the Army-McCarthy hearings), Julius Rosenberg and Barbara Walters.
“Julius’s wife Ethel appears as a shadow in the doorway,” Aaron adds, “and is mainly someone Julius is talking to.”
Beber says of Barbara Walters, “Evidently, she and Roy were friends and they dated. And I believe they were engaged to be married at one time, but it didn’t go very far. I don’t know the exact details of it, how long they were engaged, but apparently he was more interested in men. I heard recently that Roy’s mother was very much against their dating, which would stand to reason because she was a very dominating woman. She didn’t want anyone to have Roy. She wanted to dictate every bit of his life.”
Playwright Joan Beber; Photo by Gary Guidinger
Aaron continues, “For the sake of our play, Barbara remains kind of an iconic figure as she travels through time with Roy. So we see her in a variety of different periods.”
Beber discusses her play’s two Roys. “There’s young Roy who appears on stage with the older Roy. There’s a strong emphasis on the contrast between the two of them. The younger Roy wants to push older Roy in a certain direction, and the older Roy is resisting. And you see this push-pull throughout the whole play.”
Aaron adds, “Young Roy becomes what Roy might have been had Dora, his mother, not been as strong as she was.”
Beber continues, “Besides Dora there’s Lizette, his housekeeper. He actually had two housekeepers that he was very close to. Since he was an only child and often left alone, these housekeepers mothered him. I just picked one housekeeper for the play.”
Aaron interjects, “Lizette is someone who is very close to him throughout the play, kind of a major domo who is running his household.”