Wry, dry and fit for public consumption



Play speculates on adventurer’s fate — as food?

A husband and wife are in conversation on the edge of a forest in Papuan New Guinea. She wears a grass skirt and nothing else. He wears not much more, except for the bone through his nose. They talk in the Asmat tongue, but we can understand them in English — that is to say, American — translation. Let us listen in:

HE: There’s this white guy that’s shown up from…I forget the name of the

place…and Half-Moon’s waiting for me down at the lodge. We’re trying to get a feast going.

SHE: Can I come?

HE: It isn’t that kind of feast.

SHE: I see. What’s my name?

HE: What?

SHE: What’s my name?

HE: What does that mean?

SHE: What is it?

HE: I still don’t…

SHE:  Say it.

HE: Long Breeze Rousing the Forest in Hottest Summer and Swooshing.

Down to Gladden the Hearts.

SHE: Thank you.

That multiple name boils down to Breezy, for short — and this wife is a very breezy character indeed, even though she can’t seem to get pregnant no matter how hard and often she tries (along with hubby, of course).

The husband’s name is Designing Man, an Asmat equivalent for Tribal Artist — and the full name of the warrior who’s waiting for Designing Man down at the lodge is Half-Moon Terror. We don’t know the exact menu of the upcoming feast, but this is a branch of the Asmat peoples that, even as late as the 1960s, had been known to kill, cook, and eat intruders, sometimes (in the case of friendly intruders) just to ingest and absorb their souls.

Is that what happened to “this white guy” who’s so in love with the Asmat people and Asmat art — fantastical spears, shields, and masks, lots of it for years now in a special wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art — that he is returning for a second visit when his catamaran is swamped and he swims for shore through crocodile-infested waters on November 17, 1961?

We shall never know. What we do know is that his name was Michael Clark Rockefeller, that he was the idealistic 23-year-old youngest son of Nelson and Mary Clark Todhunter Rockefeller — and that despite millions laid out by his (divorced) parents on search expeditions, no trace of his body has ever been found.

Designing Man and Breezy and Half-Moon Terror and Michael Rockefeller himself are among the people in “The Man Who Ate Michael Rockefeller” — a long short story by Christopher Stokes that appeared in New American Voices and then in a quarterly called McSweeney’s.

They are also among the characters in “The Man Who Ate Michael Rockefeller” — a wry, dry play by Off-Off-Broadway’s ever-nervy Jeff Cohen.

“My wife Sydney has a subscription to McSweeney’s,” said Jeff Cohen. “She read Stokes’ story there, and then said if I didn’t adopt it into a play, she’d divorce me. So I did.

“I’d always had a vague memory of the disappearance of Michael Rockefeller — the greatest missing-persons case in history,” Cohen said with perhaps excusable exaggeration. “Nelson spared no expense looking for his son’s body. It became a cottage industry, was tabloid and gossip page stuff for months and years. A story straight out of Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness.’

“Now, after I read the Christopher Stokes story, I went up to the Met and was knocked out by the brilliance and genius of the Asmat art.

“You know, they were living over what was essentially a swamp, so all their dwellings were on stilts. ‘Asmat’ means ‘tree people.’ To call them ‘primitive’ is very condescending.”

You sound like Margaret Mead, an interviewer said.

Cohen nodded. “There is that,” he said. “For the Asmats, eating the human body is an act of spiritual power, an important and solemn ritual. After all, the entire Catholic faith is based on drinking the blood and eating the body of Christ.”

Did you go to New Guinea to see the Asmats in the flesh, so to speak, the journalist asked the playwright.

“No,” said Cohen with a laugh. “I don’t think I’d last two hours there.”

Yes, he’d got in touch with Texas-based Stokes, who wrote the piece while a graduate student “at Ole Miss,” the University of Mississippi. “Everything we know about Rockefeller’s disappearance is from our point of view. So Stokes decided to tell the story from the [imagined] Asmat point of view.”

Cohen’s play is very faithful to the story, with inserted passages here and

there of Michael Rockefeller (actor Aaron Strand) making entries in his

journal — Rockefeller’s actual journal, dug up by a dramaturge — “to give him presence. Michael turns out to have been an exceedingly bright young man.”

Jeff Cohen is not so very dumb himself. His salesman father, Stanley Cohen, for years ran the Bowie BaySox, a semi-pro baseball team. Jeff was born in Baltimore, Maryland, August 22, 1957, and made it to New York and NYU at age 18.

I think of him as the man who discovered Laura Linney. He certainly discovered her for me with her blazing, anti-Chekhovian Nina in Cohen’s “The Seagull: The Hamptons: 1990” — back when he was running the Rapp Arts Center (now the Connelly) on East 4th Street. There he also produced, among much else, Thomas M. Disch’s “The Cardinal Detoxes” — which got both of them thrown out of the church, theatrically speaking.

A decade later, Jeff was running the Tribeca Playhouse in Lower Manhattan when along came something called 9/11. For the next 10 weeks he kept the Playhouse going, bringing stars down from uptown to give some R&R to exhausted recovery workers from nearby Ground Zero.

“Like the Stage Door Canteen of World War II,” says Jeff Cohen.

The actors in “The Man Who Ate Michael Rockefeller” are David King, Tracy Jack, Daniel Morgan Shelley, Shannon Dorsey, Tyshawna Maddox, Rawle “Fitz” Williams, Sean Lum, David Brown, Jr. and Aaron Strand.

Bon appetit, folks.