Chinese Coffee: A Strange Brew

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Ira Lewis

A few years ago–well, more than a few–I lived in a tiny basement studio in the heart of Greenwich Village. I had one real friend; a nightclub photog (photographer) named… well, let’s call him Irwin.

His gambit was sending nubile gals around taking photos of drunken collegians, which were returned (the negatives, not the collegians) to Irwin in his little darkroom for developing and sale; yes, this is all before the digital revolution.

Now Irwin was a master at his nightclub craft, a pretty good art photographer besides, but a very doubtful fiction writer, which was his real desire, and the true sadness in his soul. At the time I had written two plays: the first with a modest degree of success and star performances, the second with two off-Broadway productions–both of which went approximately nowhere. That play was, and is, called Every Place Is Newark and dealt tangentially with the Newark mob and a misplaced antihero associate of it; this was, by the way, long before The Sopranos gave voice to such musings.

Newark took its first breath of fresh air at the Aspen Playwrights Conference, to which it had been submitted and which had awarded it a one month berth for development. A season later they asked if I had something new they might consider.

Guy Camilleri and Matt Chait. Photo by Ed Krieger

The sweet air of Aspen had done wonders for the sometime rancid breath of Newark so I decided to breathe life into something new. Being somewhat down in the mouth over where my life and career seemed headed, I did my usual thing when in such straits. I sat down and wrote something which might, hopefully, amuse me. Then I sent it to Aspen. And they wanted it.

What was it about? In brief, the misadventures of two rather lunatic Greenwich Village types, one a struggling dramatist, the other a night-club photog. I showed it to Irwin and for two full weeks received nothing in the way of a response.

So one evening I stopped by his club. He seemed happy enough to see me and we chatted amiably about all manner of local and world events. Then like a bolt from some unrecognizable reality he hit me with it: “Do you realize,” he quietly spat at me, “that if this excuse for a play is ever unlucky enough to get on somewhere, half the people you’ve ever known will never speak to you again?” He said this quietly, in a matter of fact manner. I denied any suspicion of such a turn of events which, it seemed, only served to feed his fuse. “And what if I never spoke to you again?” he threatened quietly.

He then began to detonate, at one point wrapping his arms (and he was a large man) around his imposingly heavy photo-enlarging mechanism. As he seemed ready to pick it up and bring it with a death-blow onto my head, I thought it was time to beat, as they say, a more than hasty retreat. Which I did.

Guy Camilleri and Matt Chait. Photo by Ed Krieger

The next day I was sitting on the splintery pier that fronted Bank Street when I suddenly said to myself, “That play I sent to Aspen wasn’t the play. Last night was the play.” And that is the play you will, more or less, see at the Complex Theatre. Jack Heller directs the LA premiere with Matt Chait as Jake the photographer and Guy Camilleri as Harry the writer.

Some years later I ran into Irwin on the street. He had only this to say, “Well, you sonovabitch, I guess I would have done the same thing myself.”

As for the “Chinese” aspect of the play’s title or the brew itself? Well, it doesn’t really exist; it’s only coffee in one of the myriad of coffee shops in New York’s Chinatown. But it does indeed help you, if so inclined, to run the hell away from yourself; which may, after all, be what my little piece is finally trying to say: It can’t be done.

Chinese Coffee, produced by Christina Hart for Synchronicity Prods., opens Jan. 8; plays Thur.-Sat., 8 pm; Sun., 7 pm; through Feb. 13. Tickets: $20. Flight Theatre at the Complex, 6472 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; 323.960.7792 or plays411.com/chinesecoffee.

Ira Lewis

Ira Lewis