The saying “write what you know” might be considered trite, but it’s certainly not without truth. Writers often mine from personal history and experience to tell some of their most potent stories. Jeff Cohen, a Drama Desk-winning playwright, found inspiration in the last years of his father’s life for Squeaky, a new play that will have a virtual reading presented by Guild Hall on Sunday, March 28, directed by Hamptonite and iconic director Bob Balaban.
The play tells the story of Cohen’s late father, Stan, affectionately known as Squeaky, as he and his family deal with end-of-life issues. It’s heavy subject matter, to be sure, but Squeaky is actually a comedy with a powerhouse cast. Squeaky is played by the prolific and iconic Harris Yulin; Mark Kudish plays Jeff, based on the playwright himself; Ben Shenkman is Rob, Jeff’s brother with whom he shares a tenuous relationship; Latanya Richardson Jackson is Connie, Squeaky’s caretaker; and Jessica Hecht plays Sandy, Jeff and Rob’s estranged mother.
“The play is an autobiographical memoir in stage form about my dad in the last few years of his life,” Cohen explains. “It’s about the relationship between me and my brother and the big fights we had about how to care for him. I think everybody of a certain generation now is dealing with aging parents and long-buried antagonisms with siblings. All that stuff comes back in a very fraught way. Having said all that, it’s a comedy.” The play deals with the complicated relationship between Cohen and his brother, who has not read the script. “One of the challenges of the play was to not make myself the hero and not make him the villain, but to show how well-meaning people can disagree,” he says.
Balaban took the directing gig after the reading had already been cast, partly due to the strength of the participating actors. Guild Hall patrons know that Balaban has directed a few readings for Guild Hall over the course of the pandemic. “They called me and said, ‘there’s a play, it’s cast, if you like it we’d like you to direct it.’ It was as simple as that,” Balaban says. This is the first collaboration between Balaban and Cohen. “The script made me curious. I thought it was well written, I thought the characters were terrific and that this could be a lot of fun and either we could do a reading and that’s what it’ll be or we’ll know from the reading that it should be a play that should stand on its own.” Balaban notes that he likes to do a reading of any script he takes on before a full production. “We’re going to have a little rehearsal, not too much, but with these actors it’s going to be fully developed right out of the gate because they’re so good. It’s magical. In my experience, sometimes the best version of some of the plays I’ve been in and watched develop are the first time people read it.”
For Balaban and many theater folk, virtual readings have been an outlet during the pandemic, which shut down the entire performing arts industry. “Well, since it’s the only thing we could do, it is what it is. It’s not fussy. You can’t worry too much,” he says. Last year, Balaban directed Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore in a reading of Same Time Next Year and was thrilled with the results. “It’s a joy to watch wonderful actors read something. It turned out really nicely. Even I, who had spent some time thinking about it, when they sat down to record it, the amazing thing was that it was two wonderful actors reading. Periodically, because they didn’t know the play very well, you’d hear it spring to life.”
Of course, any further production of Squeaky would be contingent on the pandemic ending. “A reading is wonderful,” says Cohen, “But it’s kind of like dinner without the dessert. My hope is that we could develop it as a production [at Guild Hall] and see whether it strikes a chord with people.”
Visit guildhall.org for more information on the virtual reading of Squeaky.