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Two new shows tackle thorny challenges — with varying results

David Rossmer, Steve Rosen, and the company of Rossmer and Rosen’s “The Other Josh Cohen,” directed by Hunter Foster, at the Westside Theatre through February 24.
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“The Other Josh Cohen” is a charming urban fairytale perfectly pitched to anyone who has struggled with living in the city, coping with loss and loneliness, and finding a way through in the end . Basically anyone who makes New York their home. Josh Cohen has no date for Valentine’s Day, his temp work is going nowhere, and his apartment’s been robbed, leaving him with only a Neil Diamond CD. The burglar even took the Bundt cake Josh would have used to stuff his feelings. Grim as this might be, this is the set-up for a wonderfully appealing and heartfelt musical comedy. The conceit that makes it work is that even at his most bereft, Josh is shadowed by the image of himself a year later when everything has turned out much better for him.

That “much better” starts with a misdirected letter that includes a financial gift that could be a windfall. Josh’s wrestling with his integrity sets off a chain of events that affect his life in ways he never could have imagined — all leading to a happy ending. It’s a quirky, though well-structured, story, and it reminds us of life’s unexpected turns. Along the way, we meet Josh’s family and an assortment of failed dates. Neil Diamond even makes an appearance, at least in Josh’s imagination. And all the while, Josh from the future is a relentlessly upbeat cheerleader who keeps Josh from last year in the game.

As directed by Hunter Foster, the show has a comfortable, casual feel. Steve Rosen and David Rossmer who respectively play Josh in the present and Josh in the future also wrote the largely sung-through show. They are both wonderful, charismatic performers, and the music is deceptively sophisticated with lyrics both poignant and funny. The five other members of the company — Kate Wetherhead (who is hilarious as Neil Diamond), Louis Tucci, Hannah Elless, Luke Darnell, and Elizabeth Nestlerode — play all the other roles and the instruments. Part of the fun is their listing in the program as just “a lot of people,” “a bunch of people” and so forth.

This is a classic Off-Broadway musical — one of the best in this class. It is wonderfully uncomplicated, knows what it is, and is performed by a talented cast reveling in the pleasure of telling the story. It’s pure fun, and its hopeful message is one that we can all use right now: No matter what life throws at us, we have to find a way through. So, find your way to this show.

It ain’t easy being “woke,” particularly if you’re an elementary school theater teacher trying to put on a play about Thanksgiving’s history for your young audience. That’s especially true if the teacher, currently threatened by more than 300 irate parents for mounting a controversial middle school production of “The Iceman Cometh,” is fighting for her job. Her last chance comes in creating an age-appropriate, 45-minute play about the first Thanksgiving. The rub for this particular teacher is that she is committed to presenting an enlightened cultural sensitivity toward Native Americans and the real history of what went down. While pleasing the parents and honoring tradition, she must also hew to the requirements of the grants that made the play possible, which include hiring a Native American actor. But because this teacher unintentionally cast a white actress who can “play Native American,” she’s saddled with an all-white cast. It’s all a mess.

Dramatizing — or rather satirizing — this situation is the task Larissa FastHorse has set herself in “The Thanksgiving Play,” now at Playwrights Horizons. But, over the course of 90 chaotic minutes,

FastHorse proves herself unequal to the task, and the result is a sprawling, often mean-spirited piece. Despite a few pointed jokes, the piece cynically demeans characters who appear well-intentioned and manages to trivialize the challenge of being culturally sensitive in an increasingly diverse but fragmented culture. The teacher’s effort is presented as ridiculous, to be laughed at by a presumably sophisticated audience. Satire comprised of trite gags — about frustrated playwrights resigned to teaching kids, dim actresses trading on sex, and that go-to for lazy writers these days, vegans — but with no coherent point of view can’t succeed. The presumably unintended result is simply another screed against “political correctness.”

The four-person cast does what they can with the material, as does director Moritz von Stuelpnagel. But , as written, the characters are types, not real people, so it’s not an easy task. Jennifer Bareilles is the manic teacher running the show, and she plays the entire evening at a high level of desperation, even when she has the tutelage of actress Alicia, a charming Margo Seibert. Alicia is the most developed character and what she says about ethnicity and race-blind casting is the play’s most interesting tangent. Greg Keller is entertaining, if predictable, as the slacker-cum-ally Jaxton, and Jeffrey Bean plays the would-be playwright, who largely serves the function of repeatedly bringing up the “real” history of Thanksgiving.

Cultural sensitivity is a thorny issue and it needs to be addressed constructively — even if along the way we find ways to enjoy a laugh. That’s not what happens here. Instead, FastHorse and Playwrights served up quite a turkey.

THE OTHER JOSH COHEN | Westside Theatre, 407 W. 43rd St. | Through Feb. 24: Tue., Thu.-Fri. at 7 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed. at 2 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. at 3:30 p.m. | $59-$89 at telecharge.com or 212-239-6200 | 90 mins., no intermission

THE THANKSGIVING PLAY | Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St. | Through Dec. 2: Tue.-Sat. at 7:30 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. at 2 p.m. | $59-$99 at ticketcentral.com or 212-279-4200 | 90 mins., no intermission

Updated 3:40 pm, November 15, 2018
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