By David Rossmer and Steve Rosen; Directed by Hunter Foster
Off Broadway, Musical
Runs through 2.24.19
Westside Theatre, 407 West 43rd Street
by Dan Rubins on 12.3.18
(L-R) Elizabeth Nestlerode, Kate Wetherhead, Steve Rosen, and Luke Darnell in The Other Josh Cohen. Photo by Caitlin McNaney.
BOTTOM LINE: The Other Josh Cohen is a well-performed but flimsy Cinderella story about a down-on-his-luck New Yorker feeling blue and broke before Valentine's Day.
Just about every time you look stage left at The Other Josh Cohen, Elizabeth Nestlerode is playing a new instrument. First she’s on piano. Then she busts out an electric guitar. Next thing you know she emerges from backstage with an accordion. Later on a keytar, and then, to cap it off, a violin. Did I mention she sings and acts, too? There’s an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink mentality that pervades this very goofy show by Steve Rosen and David Rossmer, but it’s only in the impressive instrument-twirling of Nestlerode and a few of her multi-talented castmates that the potpourri feels energizing rather than cumbersomely random.
There’s even an abundance of Josh Cohens in The Other Josh Cohen, as both Rosen and Rossmer take on the titular character. Rosen plays Josh as he was a year ago, a depressed, overweight Jewish New Yorker who knows every word to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory but who can’t land a date for Valentine’s Day. As the show begins, this sad-sack Josh of Valentine’s Day past comes home to find that a robber has stripped his apartment bare of all his possessions, minus a Neil Diamond CD and a pornographic DVD case (they took the DVD). Rossmer plays Josh as he is now, chipper, slick, and slimmed, reassuring the audience—and his former self, in some meta moments—that everything will turn out alright.
Things start looking up when Josh receives a check in the mail for $56,000 from an Irma Cohen, quite possibly a relative but not one Josh’s family can identify. After Josh gets that mystery check, most of the show revolves around whether Josh will cash the money with or without first finding Irma Cohen, how that might improve his love life, and what he might spend the money on. (In the Heights much more efficiently lived out that fantasy in "96,000," a single song about nearly double the cash.)
What’s most disappointing about The Other Josh Cohen, given the impressively multi-talented performers and writers, is the sense that such a relatively petite show—it’s just over 90 minutes—should feel so desperately overstuffed. Two of the eleven songs are about Neil Diamond and another is a force-fed production number about the prolific begetting of Josh’s ancestor, “Samuel Cohen’s Family Tree.” Variations, barely, on medium-funny jokes that you've probably heard elsewhere, many of them about how Jewish Josh's family is, drag on for far too long. Since Josh’s story has been set up as a flashback from the narrator’s happier time, the over-reliance on flashbacks within flashbacks leaves a story that’s pretty pale when you take away the smorgasbord of non sequiturs.
Writing silly songs, even silly songs with witty lyrics, is a lot easier than developing characters and relationships, and that’s where The Other Josh Cohen drops the ball. The residential misfortune that kicks off the show does bring about some clever wordplay: “My favorite fleece got fleeced” and “I was broke before he broke in” are among Josh’s cleverest laments. But for all the well-meaning irreverence, Rossmer and Rosen don’t deliver on their promise, set up in the opening, to trace how Rosen’s dweeb of a year ago became the cool-as-a-cucumber Josh who narrates this tale. It’s sometimes fun to hear the two Joshes join in harmony—one voice clueless, one omniscient—but, for all the narrator’s insistence, we never really see Josh self-reflect or actually change. The crucial transformation comes about in a series of coincidences catalyzed by the deus-ex-machina advice from—you guessed it—Neil Diamond, in the play’s final minutes.
The supporting cast of five take on a panoply of smaller roles. Their parts are amusingly given winking titles in the Playbill like “A Bunch of Other People” and “The Rest of the People,” but all those roles are Saturday Night Live!-thin, leaving zero room for their connections to Josh to matter much at all. When it comes to women, Josh seems to have a definite type: one-dimensional.
Still, within those limited parameters, Kate Wetherhead proves the most virtuosic as pretty much all of Josh’s would-be love interests as well as some elderly relatives—her fevered costume and accent changes mirror Nestlerode’s delightful instrument switches. There’s great work, too, from Hannah Elless, who’s the show’s main drummer and also a stand-out as a Minnesotan 411 phone operator in a Viking helmet (don’t ask!). I also liked Louis Tucci’s landlord and Luke Darnell’s yogi brother-in-law.
Hunter Foster’s sharp, quirky staging (including a lampstand revealed to be a microphone) tends to capture the quick-witted originality that the script sometimes misses out on. And the aforementioned orchestrations, by Rossmer and Dan Lipton, infuse a self-aware, playful sensibility into the capable but ordinary rock score.
The Other Josh Cohen isn’t a show that needs to be deeply meaningful to be effective—it has an excellent cast and team that could be put to more crisply comic use. But wading through the show’s relentlessly over-fluffed eiderdown looking for something to cohere can feel a little bit like getting fleeced.
(The Other Josh Cohen plays at the Westside Theatre, 407 West 43rd Street, through February 24, 2019. Running time is 1 hour 40 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Tuesdays at 7; Wednesdays at 2 and 8; Thursdays and Fridays at 7; Saturdays at 3:30 and 8:30; Sundays at 3:30. Tickets are $59-$89 and are available at telecharge.com or by calling 212-239-6200. For more information visit otherjoshcohen.com.)
The Other Josh Cohen is by David Rossmer and Steve Rosen. Directed by Hunter Foster. Set Design by Carolyn Mraz. Lighting Design by Jeff Croiter. Sound Design by Bart Fasbender. Costume Design by Nicole V. Moody. Orchestrations by Dan Lipton and David Rossmer. Stage Manager is Rebecca McBee.
The cast is Steve Rosen, David Rossmer, Luke Darnell, Hannah Elless, Elizabeth Nestlerode, Louis Tucci, and Kate Wetherhead.