If you can resist a musical comedy that contains the line “Ladies and Gentlemen, Mister Darth Vader!” then you’re stronger than me. The Other Josh Cohen, currently playing off Broadway, is funnier and stranger than The Star Wars Holiday Special, skittering madly from jokes about cat calendars to an intrusive Neil Diamond impersonator to an ethical dilemma to a surprisingly sweet love story. It has the silly look and feel of a varsity show or a cabaret act, yet the bones of a precision-built Hollywood romcom. It’s pretty much a non-stop giggle-fest for 90 delirious and endearing minutes.
The show begins before the show, when as the audience find their seats a burglar on the stage makes his methodical way through the props and carries them away, one by one. He even takes the curtain and the bundt cake. The set turns out to be the Manhattan residence of one of the three Josh Cohens we will shortly be hearing about.
Joshes the first and second are played by the authors of the musical, Steve Rosen and David Rossmer. Josh I is Josh Cohen “a year ago,” when he suffered the calamity of discovering his apartment had been emptied just before Valentine’s Day, which he expected to spend broke and brokenhearted, without even a hint of a rumor of a date on the horizon. He is lumpy and diffident, with a highly irregular mustache. The second Josh is the same man a year later: His back is a little straighter, he has a little more self-respect, and he’s lost a little weight, as well as the hair that used to mar his upper lip. Something good happened to Josh in the intervening year, and it all has to do with another New Yorker, also named Josh Cohen. This other fellow’s existence turns out to be tied in with the incident that sets the wackiness in motion: Shortly after suffering the indignity of that just before Valentine’s Day robbery, the first Josh Cohen received a $56,000 check in the mail without explanation, and didn’t know what to do with it.
The Other Josh Cohen (at the Westside Theatre through April 7) is essentially an amusing party anecdote spun into a show, with each trivial detail expanded into a song or a skit. The tunes aren’t especially memorable, and the acoustics in the theater are terrible, but the lyrics work beautifully with the madcap energy of the plot, driven by impeccably timed rapid-fire jokes. One of the few items left in the apartment after the robbery is a gift from Josh’s mom: a discount calendar, bought in Barnes & Noble after the start of the year, that features 365 days of hang-in-there kitties. The calendar gets worked into the story in hilarious ways, as do a Willy Wonka poster and a gift from a sympathetic neighbor who sells vintage toys on the Internet: a land-line speakerphone in the shape of Darth Vader. (Apparently there is a glut of these phones, and the neighbor is happy to help Josh replace the phone stolen in the robbery.) Among the few items Josh is also left with are the empty case of a porn DVD about naughty legal professionals and a Neil Diamond CD that he listens to through headphones on a portable DVD player. Watch him hum along as he bops around the apartment, occasionally singing along with the chorus of one of Neil’s hits: “Today!”
All of these little details inspire the supporting cast of five actor-singer-musicians to crazily switch personas and instruments as they take on dozens of roles. One of them gets to play Diamond himself, complete with aviator glasses, feathered hair, and a satin scarf; another plays Darth Vader, who, naturally, makes his entrance through the refrigerator. The three actresses who do the quick changes necessary to pull off so many of these roles are all so dazzling that the principal topic of your post-show discussion may be which one of the three — Jane Bruce, Cathryn Wake, or Elizabeth Nestlerode — is the best. They’re all brilliant, but to me Nestlerode clinches the crown when she does a human version of the cat calendar. The two guys who do similar quick-change work, Luke Darnell and Louis Tucci, get plenty of goofy opportunities to shine, too; it’s the lead actors playing Josh Cohen who are by far the least talented members of the ensemble, which is a reminder that if you wrote the show, you should think hard about whether you’re the best person to also star in it, because you probably aren’t.
Still, there is so much bouncy enthusiasm here that those flaws are easily forgiven. The Other Josh Cohen may be a trifle, but it’s a highly enjoyable one, and a great date-night option. If you see one of the 7 p.m. shows you’ll be out by 8:30! Would that every Broadway play followed suit.