When it was new, in 1985, Herb Gardner's "I'm Not Rappaport" seemed a play about the New York that had crystallized during the Depression and was now disappearing. Its two main characters, old men who meet on a bench in Central Park, had formed their characters in hard times. Their survival was a testament to their toughness, their refusal to despair and the power of imagination to triumph over all odds. Today, the play, the first show of the new Broadway season, exudes a different nostalgia. Set in 1982, the early years of the yuppie invasion, it depicts two dinosaurs as the Ice Age closes in. By the early '80s, New York, once a beacon for poets, playwrights, actors and crazy people of all persuasions, had become a magnet for bankers, investment analysts and the like, the absolute antithesis of the unrepentant Marxist Nat. Nat spends his time reminiscing, giving his life a luster far beyond the meager reality. Midge, a nearly blind janitor, sees clearly enough to know that Nat is spinning mostly lies. "Alterations," Nat corrects him. "Sometimes the truth don't fit. I take in here. I let out there. Till it fits."
For the most part, the play is a kind of verbal jam session. Nat, his voice a tenor sax, sends riffs dizzily into the air. Midge, a throbbing bass, provides an earthy counterpoint. The other characters are largely straight men for Nat and Midge. The chairman of the co-op where Midge has been super for 42 years informs him that his services are no longer needed. Nat, pretending to be a lawyer, threatens the flustered fellow and wins Midge a reprieve. They also have unpleasant encounters with a hood and a drug dealer, reminders that reality cannot always be thwarted by an agile mind. Nat's most difficult faceoff is with his daughter Clara, who is exasperated by his refusal to acknowledge his infirmities. Gardner turns all these situations into exchanges of wit and infectious musicality. Judd Hirsch, who originated the role of Nat 17 years ago, takes even greater risks now. His Nat seems even more irascible and volatile, and thus even funnier. As Midge, Ben Vereen is grizzled and soulful, the perfect foil to Hirsch's neurotic flights. For the most part, Vereen moves with a weighty sluggishness that seems comically unlike him. When he suddenly does a soft-shoe, it comes as pure joy. Mimi Lieber makes the frustrated Clara a perfect sparring partner. Her battle with Nat is the most convincing, and thus the most touching, of the evening. Anthony Arkin is sweetly befuddled as the co-op spokesperson. Tony Walton's 1985 set, a wistful evocation of a worn-down bridge in Central Park, is again dramatically lit by Pat Collins. The costumes are by Teresa Snider-Stein, who has given the men a layered look of delightful shabbiness and designed an especially smart dress for Clara. Although "Rappaport" has moments when it's hard to suspend disbelief, for the most part it's a magical piece of writing. Under Daniel Sullivan's expert direction, it's exhilaratingly performed.
You can pepper holes into Herb Gardner's "I'm Not Rappaport" with the ease of a machine-gun aimed at a garbage can, and it will still bounce up laughing.
And you'll be laughing with it - thanks to its neatly dovetailed stars, the divinely irascible Judd Hirsch and the skeptical and delicious Ben Vereen.
"Rappaport," which opened last night at the Booth Theater, is not exactly a play.
It's more a buddy movie without the movie, an unparalleled geezer duet where two cantankerous octogenarians - a retired Jewish waiter and a precariously employed black apartment super - dance a fantasy fandango.
Nat, an unrepentant lefty still sore at Stalin's betrayal of the cause, and Midge - much-married but now living alone in the basement of a co-op that wants to turn him out of job and home - meet most days on a Central Park bench.
Theirs is a perfectly poised symbiotic relationship. Nat needs Midge as a compliant audience for his flights of fancy, while Midge needs the vicarious excitement of Nat's tall but exquisitely tailored tales.
Other characters intrude - a mugger, an addict and her vicious dealer, the head of the co-op board of Midge's building, who jogs, and Nat's well-meaning daughter, who nags.
The incidents matter much less than the characters - in fact, the incidents matter hardly at all, and Gardner gets a little long-winded.
As in his earlier play "The Goodbye People," he can be a little treacly and preachy, such as when Nat says: "You collect old cars, old furniture, old pictures, everything except old people."
What "Rappaport" really is an essay in comic virtuosity for two actors - everything depends on them and their chemistry.
In the 17 years since Hirsch first played Nat - back when "Rappaport" started its odyssey before moving to Broadway and winning the Tony in 1986 - he's mellowed and enriched his characterization.
It's now far more sly than arrogant, and the comedy is more upfront. Although he doesn't play Nat quite as the befuddled and endearing Jewish patriarch that Paul Scofield offered in the London production, this is certainly a gentler, funnier Hirsch.
The befuddlement here is left to Vereen - Hirsch's new partner since the death of Cleavon Little.
Vereen carries shocked, uneasy and slightly cynical bewilderment to dizzying heights, making his golden moment of heroism all the more delightful.
These two should now go on to play "Waiting for Godot" or a geezer version of "The Odd Couple."
The expert staging by Daniel Sullivan, the set (a beautifully romanticized Central Park bridge) by Tony Walton and even the autumnal lighting by Pat Collins are as in the first version. Why fix what isn't broken?
The supporting cast is fine to adequate, with kudos going to Mimi Lieber as Nat's long-suffering daughter and Anthony Arkin as the jogging, puffing and easily embarrassed co-op chief.
As for the play's title: "I'm Not Rappaport" was a once well-known comedy routine (demonstrated in the play) by vaudeville comic Willie Howard.
A cardinal rule of a certain kind of sentimental comedy is that you can't keep a feisty old man down. Punch him, knife him, run him over with a tank or -- God forbid -- stuff him into a nursing home. He will still spring back to his feet, like Rasputin defying his assassins. Seasoned theatergoers know that each resurrection of said feisty old man must be acknowledged with a congratulatory round of applause.
A sterling instance of this principle in action can be found in the mild-mannered revival of Herb Gardner's ''I'm Not Rappaport,'' which opened last night at the Booth Theater, when Judd Hirsch makes his second-act entrance. Mr. Hirsch's character, a feisty old fabulist of many, many words, was left for dead at the end of the first act, the victim of a young thug who preys on the elderly in Central Park.
Yet sure enough, shortly after the curtain rises on Act II, the refreshing relative silence that has reigned is broken by the sound of Mr. Hirsch's voice, jauntily singing ''Puttin' on the Ritz.'' An aluminum walker slides into view from stage right, which turns out to support Mr. Hirsch, who nattily wears a Band-Aid on his forehead and even manages a semblance of a soft-shoe routine. (Walker dancing was not, it seems, invented by the lascivious old ladies of ''The Producers.'') Ben Vereen, playing another, less feisty old man, pretends to be annoyed by this apparition, but you know that in his heart he's glad to see him.
Whether audience members will feel the same depends entirely on their individual tolerance for this type of comedy. Whether or not you caught ''Rappaport'' in its first incarnation on Broadway -- in 1985, when it won Tony Awards for best play and best actor (for Mr. Hirsch in the same role) -- you may still have the feeling that you've seen it before, and you're still likely to anticipate its gentle reversals of plot.
Mr. Hirsch's first line as Nat, an old-school Communist of 81, seems particularly appropriate this time around: ''O.K., now where was I?'' It really is as if the conversation never stopped for the octogenarian team of Nat and Midge, who might well have been chatting away for the last 17 years in some alternate universe on that bench they share in Central Park.
True, Midge is now played by Mr. Vereen (best known as the star of the musical ''Pippin'') instead of Cleavon Little, who originated the part and who died in 1992. But the director (Daniel Sullivan) is the same. The setting (again by Tony Walton) would appear to be almost exactly the same. And I am happy to report that close to two decades later, Mr. Hirsch still doesn't look a day over 81.
In real life, Mr. Hirsch, who was 50 when he first played Nat, is 67, and on the evidence of photographs, he could still easily pass for someone in his 50's. But now as then, he doesn't make the mistake of ladling on the vocal and physical quavers that many actors assume to play old. (Mr. Vereen, it must be admitted, occasionally does.) Indeed, Mr. Hirsch remains the primary reason to revisit ''Rappaport,'' aside from that of the comfort of comedy so familiar as to feel like a lullaby.
Nat, who calls himself by assorted other names to match his exotic assumed identities, is a gray-haired version of Murray Burns, the iconoclastic hero of ''A Thousand Clowns,'' the 1962 play that made Mr. Gardner famous. (Mr. Hirsch, for the record, played Murray in a 1996 revival.) Like Murray, Nat is a Don Quixote for an age of conformity, an enduring Marxist firebrand who tilts at the windmills of social institutions that would consign him to well-behaved silence and senior centers.
There's a touch of Auntie Mame in him, a ''live, live, live'' sensibility that he imposes on the more passive Midge, a nearly blind building superintendent who only wants to hold on to his job. The essential difference between Murray and Nat is that Murray was just raging against convention; Nat is also raging against that fabled dying of the light.
Mercifully, Mr. Hirsch delivers Nat's tall tales and impassioned boilerplate speeches with precise understatement. He's a master of the Borscht Belt deadpan and dryly wrung zinger. But he lets you glimpse, just barely, the mortal fear beneath them. When Mr. Hirsch's Nat isn't speechifying, he has a habit of stretching his lips as if exercising them. You get the sense that here is a man who is scared that he'll freeze if he stops talking, and it's the most poignant thing in the production.
Mr. Vereen gives a less layered performance, partly because his role is comparatively underwritten. In his early scenes in particular, he has a tendency to put that Mr. Ed tremor in his voice, which is supposed to signal old age. But he uses his eyes to haunting effect to convey what Midge sees, both through and beyond his cataracts and glaucoma.
Actually, the dialogue between Nat and Midge is what feels stalest here, which is unfortunate, since it's the bulk of the evening. With rhythms patterned after the classic vaudeville routine that gives the play its title, their back-and-forth can seem as canned as the old-folks routines that Carol Burnett and Harvey Korman used to do on television.
''Rappaport'' takes on a more immediate sense of reality when other characters intrude. Mimi Lieber, as Nat's over-solicitous daughter, and Anthony Arkin, as the middle-aged spokesman for a tenants' committee in Midge's apartment building, bring enlivening flickers of ambivalence to their characters. They are not just the gray, obstructive symbols of the status quo that they might have been.
On the other hand, there's a question as to how much reality ''Rappaport'' can take. It could be argued that the performers who appear in the evening's violent subplots -- Tanya Clarke, Steven Boyer and Jeb Brown -- are almost too vivid. When ''Rappaport'' decides to show just how dangerous the real world can be for the elderly, it's as if someone suddenly switched channels on you. But there is never much question that the more benign comic mode of the play will ultimately reassert itself.
Allow me, if you will, to interject a bit of conversation I overheard between the two women sitting behind me just before the play began:
Ms. X: I saw it on television, at least I think I did.
Ms. Y: Yeah? What's it about?
Ms. X: It's supposed to be about two old guys talkin' -- you know, like old guys talk.
Ms. X may have been thinking of the 1996 movie version of ''Rappaport'' (which starred Walter Matthau and Ossie Davis) or even one of those ''Grumpy Old Men'' movies. But she did offer a reasonably accurate summary of what was to follow.