Drug scene takes center stage
New York — IT was a revival no one had wished for. Certainly not Carl Cohen, a ``clean-cut kid'' and college-bound senior when ``The Concept'' - the acclaimed Off Broadway play performed by ex-drug addicts - first opened in 1968.
That year, when the country was rocked by the Vietnam war and the Grateful Dead, ``The Concept'' was hailed both as an artistic achievement and an apt commentary on America's drug problem, which seemed, during the late '60s, confined to a dissident hippie subculture.
Now, 18 years later, ``The Concept'' is back. The new production is not the result of a producer's whims or theatrical nostalgia, but of a grimly accurate reflection of the monumental social changes that have occurred in the nation's war on drugs during the past two decades. This time it's Carl Cohen, a college-educated, middle-class, former cocaine addict, who is the star. (War on drugs is clogging US courts, Page 3.)
``I went from living in a house where college was a value that wasn't even questioned to living in abandoned cabs,'' says Mr. Cohen, who shot cocaine and heroin ``everywhere'' during his 15-year addiction. ``Today I'm doing an Off Broadway play about that.''
What in the '60s was originally conceived as an in-house exercise for recovering addicts at New York's Daytop Village, one of the nation's oldest and largest rehabilitation centers, was expanded into a full-fledged performance piece that functioned as a uniquely powerful social document.
Under the direction of Larry Sacharow, a former abuser's first-person, confessional narratives were elevated into a 90-minute script that played as part case history and part reenactment of the Daytop rehabilitation method. The play earned critical kudos during its extended, earlier Off Broadway run and a command performance at the Nixon White House.
Now updated and redirected by Mr. Sacharow, along with writer Casey Kurtti, ``The Concept'' continues to transcend both conventional drama and traditional therapy. This convergence of art and reality, which one critic recently called ``the first necessary event of the theatrical season,'' provides the participants with a unique extension of their rehabilitation efforts while permitting the public a rare glimpse into a world often considered the sole province of the addicted and disadvantaged.
``If this were only a play by and for drug users, I wouldn't be interested,'' Sacharow says. ``What the play does is reestablish that link between theater and culture. It asks all of us, `What are the narcotizing things in our society? How can we control our lives?'''
``These are our stories, and every night we relive all that pain and hurt,'' explains cast member Deborah Davis, a young black mother who shot heroin during her pregnancy and is now in Daytop's final recovery phase. ``But we're doing this [show] for everybody.''
Indeed, if the collective backgrounds of the current cast, a multiracial group of eight men and women whose ages range from 16 to 35 years, indicate anything, it is the far-reaching changes that have occurred among the nation's drug users since the show's inception. What was accurately portrayed on stage two decades ago by a smattering of longtime addicts, most of them ex-convicts and career criminals, has expanded in the cocaine and crack era into a nationwide problem that cuts a far broader socioeconomic swath. The initial eight cast members collectively accounted for 41 years of heroin abuse and dozens of jail sentences; the current troupe has accumulated 85 years of drug abuse but few periods of incarceration.
``The drug problem was a sickness in 1968,'' says Stan Satlin, a supervising director at Daytop, where the treatment waiting list now tops 1,000. ``Today it is an epidemic.''
``In the '60s, drug use was basically a subculture - the hard-core heroin addict, the dropouts,'' says Sacharow. ``Today they are no longer the outcasts, they're from the mainstream; they grew up with drugs as their legacy.''
That legacy is reflected in the play's autobiographical scenes, gripping confessional monologues that depict what has changed since 1968 - the spread of drug use from an urban underbelly into suburban and small-town America - and what has not changed, the impulse for taking drugs.
``I was 17 and pregnant and shooting heroin. There wasn't a person I could talk to,'' says cast member Davis.
``I could not stay on Long Island one more minute. If I saw one more Toyota hatchback filled with blond kids.... I did a little blow and started to deal. School went out the window on a cloud of dust,'' says high-schooler Michele Zampello.
``When I'm straight, I can't look at myself,'' says Cohen. ``When I started dealing dust, people respected me.''
``I'm 16 and I don't give a ... about anyone or anything,'' says Jennifer McNeill, who by age 14 was snorting $350 of cocaine a week.
``The causes [of drug abuse] haven't changed - loneliness, alienation, fear, peer pressure, not having something meaningful to do with your life,'' Sacharow says. ``These [feelings] are universal, the drugs are just the symptom.''
Indeed, ``The Concept,'' like its parent organization, which has a documented success record of returning 40,000 former addicts to ``productive lives,'' prefers not to outline causes and cures of drug abuse. Rather, it focuses on the diagnostic element. (The play takes its title from Daytop's founding concept - ``man helping man to help himself.'') While Daytop's in-house techniques rely on rap sessions, personal confessions, and individual confrontations, ``The Concept'' elevates this traditional therapy into a more tangible, and public, individual accomplishment.
``We're using drama to help raise [the ex-abuser's] self-esteem,'' Mr. Satlin says. ``The play is an educational and prevention tool of the highest degree.''
That sentiment becomes even clearer when hearing it firsthand from the cast members, none of whom are professional actors. All were selected from more than 100 Daytop residents who auditioned early last year and spent months in workshops preparing the play at Sacharow's River Arts Repertory Theater in upstate New York, before opening Off Broadway this fall.
``What we all had in common was being so unhappy that we would do anything not to feel that way again,'' Cohen says quietly. ``It is not always that much fun to relive that [on stage] every night. On the other hand, I've never completed anything in my life until this.''
``It used to be if I was in a bar, I had to get drunk just to ask a girl to dance,'' Anthony Fischetti says. ``Today I get up in front of 200 people every night and open up the deepest, darkest parts of myself. Doing this play made me see I could achieve something.''
``We're not telling people there is a cure,'' cautions Davis. ``We're showing [the public] what Daytop teaches us, that if you want to change your life, you can. That's the concept - man helping man to help himself.''
That sense of mutual support, which frequently includes rigorous self-criticism, forms the cornerstone of both the play and Daytop's rehabilitation methods.
It also shows the cast members' feelings of outreach for their audience, an eclectic mix of theatergoers, parents, and groups of schoolchildren.
``Everyone is affected by the dope scene, if not directly then indirectly,'' says cast member Melechi Bellamy, whose former cocaine habit ran to $900 a week. ``I see this [play] as almost like God's work - spreading the feeling that there is some hope.''
``Sometimes I question whether we're reaching the junkie,'' cast member Ursula Carambo says. ``But even if only a few get something, it's been worth it.''
``Some people think we're just acting,'' adds cast member Richard Murphy, who impersonated police officers and forged checks during his years of drug addiction. ``People ask me if I really did those things. I tell them we're proof [rehabilitation] can be done.,''
Although Daytop officials confess that any direct effect from the production is hard to gauge because of already overcrowded treatment facilities, they say public response, while not overwhelming in terms of numbers, has been unquestionably positive. Standing ovations, even in the unfilled houses, have generally been the rule. ``We have had unprecedented sales to groups,'' Satlin says.
``But it has been difficult to sell tickets to the average theatergoer,'' he says. ``There is a built-in resistance in the public; they want to be entertained.''
``People seem to think this is a down message about drugs,'' Sacharow adds. ``But we've designed this [play] to be universal.''
Although the play's current cast has temporarily left Off Broadway to tour, the show's producers plan to reopen in New York later this winter. Already, Sacharow is developing a videotape version to be used in schools, a second touring cast, and a new production involving the parents of abusers. The play's real value, however, still lies with its participants.
``I think about the play a lot,'' Cohen says. ``And sometimes I still see myself as this loser. But when someone comes up to me and asks me for my autograph ... that's when I want to be out there doing good.''
Fifth article in an occasional series. Others have run on Dec. 4, 10, and 16 and Jan. 2.