By Raphael Odell Shapiro
Â Starting tonight at 8 p.m. the First Presbyterian Old Whalers’ Church in Sag Harbor will be transformed into a courtroom, thanks to a creative team comprised of a dermatologist from St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan and a federal judge. Playwright Adrienne Foran and director Manuel Cofresi have collaborated to bring to the stage a fictionalized retelling of an actual court case in “The Cat, the General, the Wife, the Judge, and Calzone.”
Writing has always been a passion of Foran’s, who in addition has a certificate for screenwriting from NYU. She most recently adapted and directed an adaptation of a Chekhov story entitled “The Chorus Girl,” which was put on at the HB Studio in Manhattan. But it was at a playwriting workshop at Hunter College last year that inspiration struck.
“The idea I had when I went was useless,” laughed Foran, sitting at a table in the basement of the Old Whalers’ Church, where directly above her the set of her very first original play was being assembled on the wooden proscenium. Foran described how she had then heard the incredible true story of a five-year-long divorce case from her friend and attorney, Manuel Cofresi.
“And I thought to myself, well this has a beginning, a middle, and an end,” said Foran, “I can use this.”
According to Foran, Cofresi related how when he was still in private practice, he was hired to represent a woman (the “Wife”) in a court case against her husband (the “General”) who was suing for divorce after she supposedly hit him. The battle lasted years, and involved a cast of characters including a cat psychiatrist during a heated conflict for custody of their cat (the “Cat”) and a trio of jailed hookers, who have become a Greek chorus of sorts in Foran’s farcical retelling.
The playwright has been very involved during the rehearsals, giving creative feedback and providing a few on-the-scene rewrites. The show first had a staged reading at the Helen Mills Theater in New York City this past May, but the opening at the Old Whalers’ Church marks its premier unscripted performance.
Foran described how she finished her play, recounting how she brought the rough scripts to dinners at her sister and brother-in-law’s house and handed out copies around the table for other guests to read, so she could hear her characters come to life.
“So, people stopped coming to the dinner parties,” she joked.
Sister Diane Boyd and her husband Michael are the show’s producers, and part-time Sag Harbor residents.
Foran could not be more excited about the opening at the church. “We have a great cast,” she said, speaking of the collection of seasoned actors, including some local residents, up-and-coming young stars, and even a New York City police lieutenant, who will be playing the role of attorney Donald Calzone, Esq.
She also couldn’t be more happy with her choice of director in Cofresi, who made his directorial debut with the staged reading at the Helen Mills. “We figured he could direct a courtroom,” she said. “He’s motivated everyone, and done a great job.”
Cofresi’s own life story is one worth telling. An orphan from Spanish Harlem, he was raised at the Little Flower House of Providence and later moved to the St. Vincent Home for Boys in Brooklyn. He would eventually graduate law school, become a trial lawyer, work for the New York district attorney’s office, and in 1995 was appointed a United States administrative law judge.
And now? He’s directing, and having the time of his life. Said Cofresi, “It’s a wonderful, wonderful experience.” The rehearsal process is a particularly unique one for the judge, who in a sense is seeing his own memories replayed before him on stage. “I was the real Donald Calzone back in those days,” he said, referring to the character in Foran’s play based on him.
Cofresi apparently hasn’t missed a beat in his switch from the courtroom to the rehearsal room. “Because I am a federal judge, it’s easier to direct this kind of play,” he explained, “procedurally and substantively.” Though Cofresi admitted that the story is at it’s heart tragic, Foran has managed to turn it into a comedic drama.
“She took the story and made it into a raucous comedy,” he said. “It’s the combination of our talents that’s bringing it to the theater.”
But does Calzone (or Cofresi) win the case? To find out you’ll have to travel to the Whalers’ Church tonight, Friday or Saturday night at 8 p.m. It promises to be a nail biter.