Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff/file 2007
Let the curtain rise on a youthful Larry Coen in the halls of Newton’s schools, trying to figure out something classes can’t teach.
“I was a slightly lost kid — always considered bright, but the class clown,” he once recalled. “A number of times in my life, starting then, people pushed me against the wall and said, ‘You should do theater.’ ”
And so he did, and there he stayed, spending more than 35 years creating memorable comedic characters in Boston’s theater scene. As artistic director of City Stage, he introduced generations of urban children to the wonders of acting. For adults with a taste for edgier fare, Mr. Coen performed with the Gold Dust Orphans, a troupe that riffs off popular culture, films, and plays, often featuring men in drag (he was a daunting nun).
Mr. Coen, who was 59 and lived in Brookline, acted and directed, penned musicals for children, and co-wrote a Broadway comedy. He was found dead by a colleague Wednesday in his City Stage office, where he had collapsed, and where he had been on a writing spree, finishing drafts of two new plays in recent months.
“He was good at a million things,” said his friend and collaborator Ryan Landry, cofounder of the Orphans. On stage, the two could seamlessly slip into improvisation.
“He was incredibly funny, incredibly bright and original, and had such a unique perspective on everything — on writing, on the world, on comedy,” said David Crane, who was cocreator of the TV show “Friends,” and who co-wrote the 1999 Broadway comedy “Epic Proportions” with Mr. Coen. “He was one of the funniest people I’ve ever met and ever known, and I’ve known a lot of funny people.”
Mr. Coen’s theater ventures had an uncommon breadth. With City Stage cofounder Susan Gassett, he once wrote “Count Me In,” a play designed to help 3-year-olds grasp math. He also was scheduled to appear in the Gold Dust Orphans’ upcoming production “Brokelahomo” — no one under 16 admitted.
“Larry was a brilliant director,” said Gassett, who hired Mr. Coen at City Stage in 1982. “He could find ways to communicate with actors. I would watch him bring things out in actors that they didn’t know they had. He was a lovely man.”
Chandra Pieragostini, City Stage’s associate director of education (she prefers the simpler job title “friend of Larry Coen”), said that “in some ways, who he was as a person and who he was as an artist were the same. He was warm and vibrant and funny and caring and had a unique take on life, and also on artistry.”
Mr. Coen’s “commitment to children, and to using theater as a tool to help them make discoveries about themselves, was paramount,” she added. “He was so dedicated to finding interesting and fun and unique and engaging ways to introduce children to theater.”
And with the Gold Dust Orphans? “He was absolutely fearless,” Landry said of Mr. Coen, whom colleagues sometimes called Kitty.
“Looking in his eyes during performances was such a gift as an actor because you were looking at his character, so you could bounce off his power and put more of yourself into your own character,” he added. “You felt such confidence as an actor because Kitty was generating so much power through his eyes as his character.”
Working constantly for years on end, Mr. Coen won Elliot Norton directing awards in 2010, for the Orphans’ “Phantom of the Oprah,” and in 2012, for the SpeakEasy Stage Company’s “The Divine Sister.” He also received performing awards for productions including “The Plexiglass Menagerie,” a spoof of Tennessee Williams, and “Silent Night of the Lambs,” in which Mr. Coen portrayed Hannibal Lecter as a killer Santa.
Along with providing free arts education through City Stage, Mr. Coen had run KidStage at Boston Children’s Museum. His scores of other credits included productions with the Beau Jest Moving Theatre, the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, and Shakespeare plays on Boston Common with Commonwealth Shakespeare Company.
“It’s all about playing,” he said in a 2007 Globe interview of his profound attachment to acting and directing. “When you’re a kid and you’re playing with Matchbox cars or dolls and you create an entire world around them, that’s narcotic.”
The fifth of six siblings, Larry Coen grew up in Newton, a son of Thomas Coen, a mail carrier, and the former Eleanor Byrne, a homemaker who was a closet actress.
After Mr. Coen died, neighbors reminded his siblings that he used to put on plays as a 7-year-old, enlisting other children as actors. “He was always the funny guy. He was just a blast to be around,” said his brother Joey of Newton. “Larry was also a warm caring person. He was very sensitive.”
At family gatherings as the siblings grew into adults, Mr. Coen “had a booming laugh and a big voice,” said his sister Theresa Barisano of Newton. “You knew Larry was in the room, and we just loved it when he would take over and go at it with our mother.”
Mr. Coen graduated from Newton North High School in 1976 and studied theater at Brandeis University, where a close friend was Crane, with whom he would write “Epic Proportions.” Starring Kristin Chenoweth in its Broadway run, the show spoofed sprawling biblical movies like “The Ten Commandments.”
At Brandeis, Mr. Coen’s multiple talents were quickly apparent. “As an actor, as a writer, as a director — basically everything he’s been doing since he got out of school he was doing back then, just as impressively,” Crane said.
Mr. Coen was memorable as a teacher from the end of college, too, including a summer theater camp gig when among his students was a teenaged Rachel Dratch, who would later join the “Saturday Night Live” cast.
“I remember his fun energy and that he was sweet,” said Dratch, who had reconnected with Mr. Coen on Facebook. “Not every teacher stands out in your memory,” she added, “and he definitely did.”
In addition to his brother Joey and sister Theresa, Mr. Coen leaves two other brothers, Thomas Jr. of Provincetown and Christopher of Walpole; and another sister, Mary Coen-Wyman of Sausalito, Calif.
A funeral Mass will be said at 10:30 a.m. Thursday in Our Lady Help of Christians Church in Newton.
“We’re all just numb,” said Mr. Coen’s brother Joey said. “It’s just a huge loss,”
Though Landry had noticed that Mr. Coen hadn’t seemed to be feeling well of late, his death shocked all who knew him.
“He was kind of like an everyman. He was a mother, a father, a friend, a platonic boyfriend, a fellow clown, a confidant,” Landry added. “I married his mind, and I guess he married mine, and now I’m a widow in some ways, and I don’t know what to do.”
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