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Theatre in Review: The Other Josh Cohen (Westside Theatre)

David Rossmer, Steve Rosen. Photo: Caitlin McNaney.

The quote ad for The Other Josh Cohen includes the following: "It's Seinfeld meets Rodgers and Hart!" I don't know about the Rodgers and Hart bit, but the Seinfeld reference is right on: Like that fabled sitcom, the new musical at the Westside Theatre is about nothing at all.

I don't necessarily mean this as a criticism, but you need to know what you might be getting into. This fitfully hilarious evening benefits from a cast loaded with charm and some bouncy, if forgettable, songs -- which, oddly for a show in Manhattan, have a distinct country twang -- plus a boatload of scattershot jokes that land more often than they rightfully should. But be aware: This entertainment is so frothy and light-minded, it's a wonder they don't have to keep it tethered to the ground with ropes.

The plot is simple. The title character receives in the mail a check for $56,000. No letter is included and the sender, although named Cohen, is unknown. What to do? The subsequent action involves a couple of phone calls and a flurry of letters; next to the book by David Rossmer and Steve Rosen, the most air-headed 1920s frolic -- those of the school of No, No, Nanette -- looks like The King and I, Follies, and Dreamgirls rolled into one. The Other Josh Cohen isn't just high concept, it's all concept. Rossmer, who is handsome and buff, and Rosen, who is pudgy and mustachioed, share the role of the title character, now and then. Rossmer narrates the tale of the postal windfall and Rosen acts it out; they also indulge in plenty of kibitzing. A better way of putting it is, The Other Josh Cohen is like a two-guy standup act, with songs, a supporting cast, and plenty of run-on commentary.

First produced in 2012, the show, a catalogue of Jewish single-guy woes -- including kvetchy parents, bar mitzvah gags, and a number that includes the refrain "La la Jewish lesbians la la" -- often feels like a radio dispatch from an earlier era. It begins with Josh discovering that his apartment has been robbed. According to the opening number, "Only the Beginning," "Burglary's a New York rite of passage, people swear/Like the first time you see Elmo take his head off in Times Square." Clever line, that -- but are we really living through an epidemic of home invasions these days? Isn't that notion left over from Neil Simon's The Prisoner of Second Ave.? As it happens, the thief leaves behind two items, a porno DVD (amusingly titled Oversexed Injury Lawyers) and a Neil Diamond CD. Somebody needs to tell Josh to update his tastes in entertainment -- and to get hip to the joys of streaming. Similarly, his ideal romantic partner is someone who gets his references from the original Gene Wilder version of the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Really, there are moments when you have to wonder if Josh needs a girlfriend or an AARP card.

Anyway, The Other Josh Cohen skips through a series of gags, bits, and set pieces, some of them very funny, even when they betray a certain origin in the Catskills School of Comedy. Josh, introduced to an attractive young lady at a noisy party, mishears her name as Baby -- in reality, it is Amy -- and, attempting to ingratiate himself, succeeds in driving her away by planting a "baby" in each sentence he utters. ("Hey, you must hate Dirty Dancing," he adds, unhelpfully, while she glares, icily.) There's a riotous bit about Josh's father, whose answering machine greeting includes several volumes' worth of instructions, all of them delivered in a tone that suggests he is addressing a convention of the hard of hearing. When his smartphone breaks, Josh ends up with a landline instrument designed to look like the head of Darth Vader -- it's a collectible -- leading to several mortifying conversations with a shiny black helmet. The show also gets more mileage than you might imagine from a daily calendar offering one cloying photo after another of dangling felines, a gift from Josh's Aunt Bea.

The songs are mostly agreeable time-fillers. "Neil Life," a tribute to the talented Mr. Diamond, includes the statement "Neil knows how bad it hurts/Prozac in puffy shirts," and "Samuel Cohen's Family Tree," in which Josh peruses his crowded list of relations in search of the sender of the check, has its moments. (Apparently, Samuel, his grandfather, really got around.) Rossmer and Rosen, friends since childhood, play off each other with an enviable ease and freedom; one can well imagine them starring in a CBS sitcom (the traditional kind, with three cameras) about a couple of wacky single guys. In a variety of roles, including a sadistic CVS customer, a befuddled old lady, Josh's gravel-voiced mother, and -- yes! -- Neil Diamond, the sparkling Kate Wetherhead lands every available laugh. Louis Tucci is a panic as Josh's father, who, after hearing his son's story, recounts it to others with enormous enthusiasm and "about thirty percent accuracy."

Carolyn Mraz's set design, depicting Josh's tiny apartment denuded of his belongings, is suitably done, and Nicole V. Moody's costumes, aided by J. Jared Janas' wig designs, allow the cast to take on and discard characters at a dizzying pace. Bart Fasbender's sound keeps the lyrics intelligible. Jeff Croiter's lighting demonstrates the perils of using so many high-brightness color-mixing LED units in a theatre with such a low ceiling; the book scenes look perfectly good, but the numbers are awash in garish hues. (This isn't typical of the designer; I suspect the influence of the director, Hunter Foster, who otherwise makes certain that a giddy party air is maintained throughout.)

Anyone looking for an undemanding hour and a half of Seinfeldian shtick, even if some of it has crept by its sell-by date, will probably get his or her money's worth. It's a fast, funny evening, but don't be surprised if, the next morning, you don't remember what you did the night before. -- David Barbour

(13 November 2018)

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