“The Trials of Harvey Matusow”, Sweet Venues

Jeremy Malies in Hove
14 February 2024

They say only organists go to organ concerts. Whether audience members who surrounded me for a bio-drama about an obscure American communist who collaborated with House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in the 1950s were all US politics junkies I don’t know. But it was manifest from comments as they streamed contentedly out into Montgomery Street that Robert Cohen had turned what on paper appeared a potentially stodgy history lesson into an engrossing retrospective monologue.

This reviewer came to the show with baggage; he is an American politics junkie. But judged on any criterion, be it stagecraft in sustaining the narrative for 90 minutes, psychological insight, precise debate on culpability or deft creation of an authentic period musk, this was among the best one-handers I have seen in 40 years of theatre-going.

Written by Cohen himself and directed by Ralf Higgins, the piece is divided into nine digestible scenes with Matusow first appearing on a freighter crossing the Mersey Estuary in 1966 for a period of exile in England. The sections may have developed in associative leaps but the play was never a stream of consciousness; Cohen’s character engaged with the audience and used its responses to find his tempo. The piece has the cardinal merit of not being purely chronological; it is circular and at times thematic.

The performer managed to make a perjurer and quisling likeable while inviting us to judge him, perhaps with the proviso that one man’s loose cannon is another man’s freedom fighter. I howled with laughter as Matusow told us that he had “given up lying – at least professionally.” Background detail emphasised the point that McCarthyism as a mindset came to prominence long before the politician himself. It should be said that McCarthy himself was never involved with HUAC but to talk here of “McCarthyism” is acceptable shorthand.

The piece stems from exhaustive research in an archive at the University of Sussex which Cohen has filtered as if looking for plankton, preserving the telling details and so absorbing us in the period’s political paranoia. There is affecting treatment of the untainted leftist Matusow attending the Paul Robeson concert in 1949 that resulted in the Peekskill Riots. Later there is fine comedy when Matusow tells McCarthy’s chief counsel Roy Cohn that he was there. There is vivid treatment of Cohn’s subtle influence on the trial of Matusow’s fellow travellers Julius and Ethel Rosenberg which saw them “fried” to use Harvey’s evocative term at Sing Sing prison.

The play took us up to December 1973 with the Watergate burglary convictions only a month away. In flashback we have seen Matusow descend from youthful leftish idealism to a Faustian pact with the FBI and despair at being beyond redemption after a career based on breaking other people. It’s the kind of play you need to see a few times just to absorb the breadth of the life and its bizarre nature. Matusow performed many outlandish musical experiments which included burying pianos in soil to see how they sounded. It pays to be forearmed when you hear lines such as: “If you buried a piano in earth above the level of the keys, people would think you were nuts!”

As we left Matusow was about to watch Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments with a group of prostitutes for company. Harvey can’t wait for “Chuck to hit the bulrushes.” The irony here for the author of memoirs entitled False Witness is not lost on Matusow who is above all endearing for his openness. Cohen and Higgins have created an absorbing piece that is the polar opposite of the kind of dramatised Wikipedia entries that bedevil many festivals. It richly deserves a transfer elsewhere in the UK and would flourish in Edinburgh. The play will be performed in Kansas City late this month and early March.