(New York Jewish Week) — For any New Yorker, the background noise of the 2000s may well have been marked by the numbers 800-888-8888, the ubiquitous jingle for the Buffalo-based personal injury law firm Cellino and Barnes.
The renown of Ross Cellino and Stephen Barnes grew even more when the pair contentiously split up in 2017. Their acrimonious business divorce included clashes over managing the business, a restraining order against Cellino, claims of “bullying” by Barnes and a complaint that Barnes refused to let Cellino hire his own daughter.
Naturally, comedy writers Michael Breen and David Rafailedes needed to write a show about what might have gone down, including a scene about how that infamous jingle came into existence.
Breen and Rafailedes had performed the show, “Cellino v. Barnes,” a handful of times in New York in 2020 before the pandemic shut it down. Breen moved to California and Rafailedes headed to grad school and the play they wrote about a unique New York sensation almost faded into the ether.
But this isn’t that story. This is the story of how two 25-year-old high school buddies and amateur theater producers made sure that didn’t happen — and how they leaned on their synagogues to get the job done.
David Pochapin and Cameron Koffman were 22 when they saw “Cellino v. Barnes.” They loved the show for the way it spoke to their sense of humor, their New York childhoods and their love of niche theater. The pair would eventually take on the task of producing the play and teaming up with Breen and Rafailedes to bring it to a wider audience, this time in a vacant office space in Manhattan to really give audiences the feeling of authenticity.
Now 25 and a year into producing “Cellino v. Barnes: The Play,” Pochapin and Koffman are admittedly amateurs — Pochapin works a day job in FinTech and Koffman in city government.
“When we are trying to get people to come see the show, we say, ‘we’re doing this not because we saw a business opportunity but because we genuinely saw a story that more people needed to see,’” Pochapin said. “It’s hard to imagine finding another project quite like this. It’s been a wild ride and we’re super excited for the show.”
(On Oct. 2, 2020, Stephen Barnes and his niece were killed in the crash of a private plane in upstate New York. Pochapin said there is “absolutely no comedy about the plane crash” and the show centers around the creation, success and break-up of the firm.)
Ahead of the show’s opening, the New York Jewish Week spoke to Koffman and Pochapin about why they love the show, how their synagogues and Jewish communities have supported them in this process and what changes they are most excited about.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
New York Jewish Week: How did you get involved as producers with the show?
Cameron Koffman: We first saw the show in January of 2020. We had no involvement — we had just seen an article from the Buffalo News: “Show about Cellino and Barnes is an 8.8888 out of 10.” It sounded fun and it was playing in New York City for just a couple shows in January at the Bell House in Gowanus. It was the absolute funniest thing. Then COVID hit, obviously, six, seven weeks later, and life moved on.
I got an email from the venue that the show was back for two performances in August of 2021. David and I dragged more of our friends. It was a big group activity because we had been talking about the show for a year and a half at this point. I mean, it’s Cellino and Barnes, iconic New York names and a jingle that everybody recognizes. We saw it again and it was even funnier.
We had a mutual friend with one of the actors and pushed to get a drink because we just really wanted to tell them, “We thought the play was so funny. It was so great that someone wanted to tell this story.” When we met up with him, we asked if he ever had aspirations to make a permanent run out of it. He said yes, but COVID happened, he ended up having a kid and the other co-writer and actor moved out to the West Coast. Basically, life got in the way. When we talked to [Breen and Rafailedes], it really just sounded like more than anything they needed people to help initiate the process, which we thought we would be able to handle.
We certainly didn’t have experience in production, but we were so passionate about the story and we like to get our hands dirty with logistics. We just thought it was so fun that we wanted to take it to another level and really create a full run of this. We put our heads down, worked on a proposal and here we are.
How did your Jewish communities step in to help get the show back on its feet again?
DP: When we first got into this, which was over a year ago now, we talked to everyone we could, every person that would hear us out and offer an opinion. We reached out to people at my synagogue and they offered to provide chairs for the audience and books for the set, so now we have chairs and books. We’re both very involved in our synagogues — mine is Sutton Place Synagogue and Cameron’s is Temple Emanu-El. My first exposure to theater at a young age was not only in school, but during the Purim spiels at my synagogue. It is because of our communities and our upbringing there that we have the confidence that we’ll be able to do this.
CK: It really is. So many people that we know, that we rely on, that we talk to and the time that we spend with them have helped us put this show together. For example, I lead a couple of lay-led groups at Temple Emanu-El. Through that, I’ve become friendly with dozens of people, I’ve met other people through the young members circle, through becoming friendly with the rabbi and actually leading Shabbat once last year. So — for both of us — one of the main reasons we knew we could do this was because we’re deeply embedded in a large Jewish community and we knew that we could tap into people that would be able to sort of help and guide us with advice and knowledge along the way. Also, we knew we’d be able to blast out the show to a lot of people. David could tell you, one of the first people to buy a ticket for the play was the rabbi [Rachel Ain] from Sutton Place Synagogue, she and her whole family.
As producers you have a little more control than you did as audience members. What changes are you most excited about since the first production?
CK: Not much had to change about the story. Breen and Rafailedes had done the play and certainly the story of Cellino and Barnes is still ever present in the cultural milieu of today. For a large swath of people, millions of people in the New York area, and even in California, where Cellino and Barnes worked too, that jingle just rings a bell and it seared itself into our brains, so our vision didn’t have to be focused on making sure there was name recognition.
When we saw it at The Bell House, the show was very bare bones. The venue had a stage, but it’s a big hall with 200-250 seats and you don’t really feel like you’re at a theater venue — you certainly don’t feel like you’re at an experiential venue. The space that we got on West 23rd is a vacant commercial space that feels like you’re actually in a law office. That was one of the key things we brought — we thought, “if we’re going to really lean on the vibe and the aura of Cellino and Barnes, we want to make you feel like you’re stepping into a dingy personal injury attorney’s office, with plaques on the wall and all of it.”
Why should people see it?
CK: I’m deeply passionate about my love for New York. A couple years ago, right out of college, I actually ran for the New York State Legislature. I love the city. It’s just such an amazing place. Cellino and Barnes is very much a part of New York’s cultural fabric. There are just certain things that resonate with all New Yorkers. It’s Roscoe the bedbug dog from Bell Environmental, it’s Sandy Kenyon from the Eyewitness News “movie minute” in the back of the taxi cab. All those sorts of things that people who grew up in New York or who have spent significant time here will know and recognize.
So many people come from different backgrounds, but there are still these unifiers — everybody’s seen the billboards and subway ads. And although it is a very New York production, we do think that it can resonate with everybody. Every city seems to have their own version of Cellino and Barnes — the mysterious personal injury lawyer who’s on every billboard, on every bus, and who has their slogan.
DP: When you’re in the theater and you’re laughing at these two people that are so nostalgic and are two of the easiest people to laugh and make jokes about, it’s just an unforgettable night. It’s hilarious, and even though it’s a comedy it also makes you think. Cameron and I have had several discussions about who’s right or wrong and Team Cellino or Team Barnes.
“Cellino v. Barnes: The Play” opens on April 13 at 320 W 23rd St. Tickets start at $40.
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