Oh Dear, Abbie

ABBIE, now playing at the West End Theater at The Church of St. Paul & St. Andrew on the Upper West Side, is a one-man show about radical 60s and 70s activist Abbie Hoffman. Adapted from Hoffman’s own speeches and writings and starring actor, educator, and native New Yorker Bern Cohen, ABBIE is an interesting tale, not so interestingly told. Subtitled The Personal Story of the Clown Prince of the Sixties Revolution, this 75-minute solo performance describes itself as an intimate portrait of the leader of the Youth International Party (“Yippies”) and author of the counterculture manifesto Steal This Book. Unfortunately, ABBIE drains all the life out of the controversial “Chicago Seven” member. Instead of being energizing, the show is oddly enervating.

Retired school principal and professional film actor Bern Cohen (27 Dresses, Holy Rollers, Brooklyn Rules), whose recent stage credits include The Assistant at the Turtle Shell Theater, boasts an actual connection to Hoffman. In addition to crossing paths with him at a 1971 Columbia University protest, Cohen was mistakenly arrested in 1976 in Ohio because of his physical resemblance to the infamous anarchist when Hoffman was a wanted man on cocaine charges. This incident spurred a lifelong interest in Cohen of all things Hoffman.

ABBIE is presented as a 1987 “sociology lecture” by Hoffman, complete with slides and video from Morgan Paul Freeman, a former Black Eyed Peas and Erykah Badu video projectionist. However, these images are too few and too far between to really add anything to the “lecture.” Mostly they are used as addenda to Hoffman’s talking points (“Here is a picture of my father… my house… my high school…” etc.). Showing the images on a larger screen, or, even better, projecting them on the unused wall space of the theater, might have given them more of an impact, as would smoother transitions.

The main problem with ABBIE, though, lies in the performance. Although Mr. Cohen wrote the script for this, his pet project, he struggled to remember his lines at the show I attended. Whether he was unprepared, under-rehearsed, or both, his Hoffman was unfocused and seemingly uncomfortable on stage. Director Thomas Caruso (Around the World in 80 Days at Penguin Rep, Associate Director of Bombay Dreams and Follies on Broadway) did not help matters by having Cohen in constant motion, repeatedly rearranging the set’s furniture and moving from chair to stool over and over again. As an acting teacher once told me, “There is power in stillness.”

Besides being 15 years too old to play Hoffman (who committed suicide at age 52 in 1989), the 67-year-old Cohen lacks nuance as the social and anti-war activist, never delving the depths of Hoffman’s revolutionary character. This is, after all, a man who suffered beatings by the police and was forced underground into hiding because of his actions. In addition, Hoffman was a slick salesman of guerilla theater tactics and outrageous media stunts, such as dropping cash onto the New York Stock Exchange trading floor. Whatever is being sold in ABBIE by Cohen is simply not being sold hard enough.

This first-person narrative of the life of Abbot Howard Hoffman is too pat and too dull for such an irascible and irrepressibly comic figure. Even an A&E Biography has more edge than ABBIE. Where is the humor? The passion? The outrageousness? The pain? The relatively short show drags on and on without a spark of life, ending unceremoniously with a clip of Hoffman himself talking about death.

Instead of spending their money on $38 tickets to ABBIE, fans of “the clown prince of the 60s revolution” are advised to check out his brilliant autobiography for real insight into the man. Or perhaps wait for the much-anticipated portrayal of Hoffman by Sasha Baron Cohen (Borat, Brüno) in the Aaron Sorkin-scripted film, The Trial of The Chicago Seven, currently in development?

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