"Chinese Coffee" by Ira Lewis

It’s not often that I read plays. I’ve read a couple of playwrights over the years: Arthur Miller, Dario Fo, Edward Albee, David Mamet, Eugene O’Neil, Tennessee Williams, probably a couple of others I can’t recall at the moment. I would also like to see more plays but to find the kinds of plays I like around New York City these days, one has to either be very into the theater scene or know the Off-Broadway spaces in which they are performed, which, of course, I am admittedly clueless. I’m not speaking of the giant Broadway extravaganzas (usually of musical theater variety, of which I really have no love for - save for a few). I’m speaking of the “old-school” plays, the way they used to be when you’d go to Broadway and see Arthur Miller’s new play, or Eugene O’Neil, when they were in their prime, instead of these new “Jukebox Musicals” and/or adaptions of old Hollywood films or bombastic musical performances. Just a simple, hard hitting drama, where 90 minutes will allow one to walk away thinking as well as be entertained. And, naturally, exploring the work of contemporary playwrights who don’t do musical theater or these other bombastic productions. And they are out there. I just have to be more diligent in seeking them out. These days, the kinds of plays I’m talking about are usually Off-Broadway productions (for performances of the well known playwrights, sometimes not) and Off-Off-Broadway productions, where you are more likely to find the up and coming playwrights working in the shadows, so to speak. What I love about such writing is that there can be so much storytelling power in such a minimal setting, as is with Ira Lewis’s play Chinese Coffee, a play I became acquainted with via some clips on YouTube of the film of the same name starring Al Pacino and Jerry Orbach. 

 

Since the DVD of this play seems to only be available via a box set of smaller Al Pacino films (“labors of love” in which he directed and financed himself) the only other option was to read the original and I have to say the play did not disappoint. Centered on two main characters, Harry Levine - a middle aged writer who lives in abject poverty and his friend Jacob “Jake” Manheim, a fifty-ish photographer and would be writer himself had he had the ambition to pursue it further. The entire play is set in Jake’s Greenwich Village studio apartment/photography studio on a cold February night “sometime in the recent past”. Harry is down to his last $1.50 and he appears at Jake’s apartment one night - literally shaking - after being fired from his job as a doorman and seeking the $500 that Jake owes him. What follows - and what makes up the entire play - is the conversation they have about where they each currently stand in life, being middle-aged artists who still find themselves in the same predicament they always had. Harry did have some success, having published two prior novels, both of which had been forgotten and remaindered. Jake is now a “theatrical photographer”, taking head shots of wanna-be actors after walking away from his job as a club photographer. Each of them are alone, somewhat bitter, world weary and at a point in their lives where they wonder what the “struggle” was even all about.  But is is Harry who is having the hardest time. Obviously more destitute than his friend, not only does he come seeking repayment of a large loan but to also get his friend’s opinion on his latest novel, one he worked three and a half years on and sees as his last hope to finally achieve something in his life. Harry is well aware that he is no longer the “18 year old with the guide to Greenwich Village” in his hand “being able to ‘nickel and dime it for pizza and Pepsi’”, that he is a “man of a certain age”, destined to “check out penniless” like his own mother and father. He has reached a point in his life - at 44 - to climb out of his dank basement apartment and live a more desirable life. His novel - he hopes - will be his ticket out. However, his good friend doesn’t have a lot of good things to say about it, accusing him of trying to “profit off other people’s misery”, this of course, after lecturing Harry to “go for the money” no matter where he can get it from. The reason behind Jake’s ill reception of the novel goes beyond recognizing that the two main characters are based on himself and Harry and his reasons are the gist of what this play is ultimately about: the right of an artist to affirm his right to succeed and the realization that sometimes even those closest to you will not support that right due to unspoken resentments and/or jealousies they may harbor. 

 

The dialogue is crisp, sharp, witty and immensely readable. One will not be able to put this down. The interaction between the two friends are probably conversations you may have had with your own, the issues explored - that of creativity and aging in a harsh world that couldn’t give a rat’s ass about artists or creativity - all of which will hit home, especially if you’re a creative individual up in years, still trying to find your way. A very powerful statement and a very powerful play. Highly recommended. 

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