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I'm Not Rappaport (11/19/1985 - 01/17/1988)


 

New York Daily News: "The Golden Years in a not-quite-golden drama"

"I'm Not Rappaport" transferred to the Booth Theater on November 19, 1985.

Given this rein as a compulsive and persuasive talker, Judd Hirsch can be an enormously entertaining actor, as he was several years ago in "Talley's Folly," and is once again in Herb Gardner's "I'm Not Rappaport," a synthetic but largely enjoyable wry comedy about old age that came to the American Place Theater last night. 

He and Cleavon Little, who is first-rate as a sort of straight man for Hirsch, play a pair of crusty octogenarians who find themselves together most afternoons on a Central Park bench in Tony Walton's marvelously evocative design of an old stone bridge with a footpath above. Nat (Hirsch) is in the habit of regaling Midge (Little) with fanciful tales of his past and present as a secret agent and other things. Although Midge disgustedly sees through Nat's disguises, Nat is able to fool - for both their advantages- a variety of intruders. The most important of these is his older daughter, who would like to see him sheltered either in 1) her Great Neck home ("Siberia," Nat calls it), 2) a reputable nursing home, or 3) a neighborhood senior-citizen program ("kindergarten," says Nat). 

Aside from the amusing amd skillfully turned patter between Nat and Midge that makes up a large part of the first act, the evening's most touching scene involves the confrontation between Nat and his daughter Clara, admirably set forth by Cheryl Giannini. And there is also a funny telling-off of an excruciatingly sincere middle-aged jogger who seeks out Midge to tell him that since the apartment building whose boiler-room Midge tends is going co-op, his services will no longer be required. Furthermore, the adjoining room Midge lives in is being converted into a "garden apartment."

Gardner's dialogue is brisk, funny and pointed - especially for Nat, a devoted Marxist of the old school - but these little episodes aren't enough to fill out an evening, as David Mamet wisely considered in his somewhat similar one-actor, "Duck Variation." So, with many a melodramatic flourish, Gardner introduces a soft-spoken but vicious drug-dealing "cowboy" (Ray Baker) and a pretty young addict (Liann Pattison) who owes him $2,000 and is beaten up as a warning. In addition, there's a young tough who, for $4 a walk, "protects" Midge, and then Nat, by seeing them home each day. 

As the play and its very pertinent subject, the fate of the aged (though both men are mentally unimpaired, they are physically enfeebled), slip away from Gardner, the evening loses its conviction and becomes, like so much of the author's work, an uncomfortable mixture of sentiment, humor, philosophizing and pseudo-intellectualism. Gardner's knack for turning nifty phases just isn't enough. 

Dan Sullivan has staged the piece tidily, with the invaluable assistance of B.H. Barry for the violent scenes, and Walton's superb set is handsomely complemeted by Robert Morgan's costumes and Pat Collins' lighting. Hirsch, his familiar features scarcely dissernible beneath a scraggly white beard and heavy white eyebrows, is almost, but not quite, a show in himself. And "I'm Not Rappaort" is almost, but not quite, the ironic comedy Gardner was looking for.


New York Daily News
06/07/1985

New York Post: "Comic 'Rappaport' takes illusion lightly"

"I'm Not Rappaport" transferred to the Booth Theater on November 19, 1985.

There is something stealthily attractive and winning about Herb Gardner's rambuctiously funny play I'm Not Rappaport, which sailed in joyfully with two magnificent comedians, Judd Hirsch and Cleavon Little, to the American Place Theater last night. 

In somber terms it is about the importance of illusion in the ugly face of fact, but this is, by no means or intent, a somber play. 

Gardner has cooked up a delightful fantasy comedy with real characters poised delicately in an egg-shell world of reality. 

It is also a play about aging - and people's fear of age, seeing in it their own future. 

Mind you, Gardner's principal characters, two octagenarians, one white, one black, coming to grips with life from the vantage point of a bench in Central Park, are only old in calendar terms. 

Their responses remain frisky - in the case of Nat, a crusty curmudgeon, by profession and by fate a Jewish battler from the workers' barricades of the 30's, probably too frisky for his own good. 

Certainly too frisky for the good of his reluctant friend, Midge, who favors a somewhat lower profile as a recipe for geriatric survival. He at least still has a job - or at least had one until Nat tried to help him. 

Nat chooses to live in a strangely hard-edged fantasy world. When we first meet him he is explaining to his new acquaintance, and explaining with a wealth of circumstance flim-flam, that he is an undercover agent posing as a Cuban terrorist. 

There is not a word of literal truth in the story, but it posesses the special truth of internal conviction. You see, Nat is incapable of lying. 

His far-spun fancies are not lies, but what he calls "alterations." As Nat sees it: "Sometimes the truth doesn't fit - I let it out and take it in, here and there." Nat is a philosopher. He even lost his job as a waiter in a kosher restaurant because he talked too much. 

Having gotten his two old men, Sam Beckett-style, on his bench - one still waiting for Lefty, the other waiting for God knows what - Gardner is compelled to do something with them. 

Convention demands - although it never demanded it of Beckett, but that was, and is, a higher matter - something usually referred to as a plot. And here, to be honest, Gardner is not on quite such secure ground as with his characters and their attitudes. 

It doesn't matter. In fact you might well hardly notice its absence. Events, not events nearly as likely as the people inhabiting them, do vaguely event. 

Nat has a loving daughter - a prosperous suburban housewife who has moved away from her radical upbringing, or as her father puts it, "gave up Marx and Engels for Bergdorf and Goodman" - who is looking out for his safety in the city jungle. 

There is also the question of how Midge, an oldtime apartment janitor, will survive the gentrifiction of his building into a co-op. 

And finally there are a couple of slightly unlikely and even dramatically unwieldy incidents - a ruffian knife-brandishing mugger, demanding modest protection money to walk oldsters as if they were dogs, and a urban cowboy coke-dealer terrorizing a young woman sketch-artist who is haplessly welshing on her credit. 

What actually happens is as unimportant to the play's inner life as is its title, which is based on a Second Avenue vaudeville routine. 

The play triumphantly exists in its concept - and in this aspect it recalls Gardner's earlier hit, A Thousand Clowns - and performance. 

The staging by Daniel Sullivan, who first directed it at his own Seattle Repertory Theater, is properly idiomatic and idiosyncratic, like the acting, and Tony Walton's careful realization of Central Park, aided and abetted by Robert Morgan's apt costumes and Pat Collins' lighting, does Olmstead and his Park proud. 

The supporting cast is excellent, particularly Cheryl Giannini as Nat's pained and loving, deradicalized daughter, but the play's real purpose is left to the protagonist and his antagonist - Judd Hirsch's Nat and Cleavon Little's Midge. 

They work together as smoothly as any vaudeville team: Hirsch's naughtily rapscallion, disreputably intellectual Nat finding a perfect match in Little's warily disgusted, yet grudgingly admiring, Midge. 

They seem to have been born on Walton's bench, and Gardner had nothing more to do than to come along and sketch them. 

I'm Not Rappaport is precisely the kind of play, full of middle-brow brilliance and crafty craft, that Broadway needs to survive. One trusts that the play will move there with dispatch. Its presence, and that of its two masterclowns, would add luster to the newly born season.


New York Post
06/07/1985

The New York Times: "Gardner's 'I'm Not Rappaport'"

"I'm Not Rappaport" transferred to the Booth Theater on November 19, 1985.

No one can accuse Herb Gardner of betraying his convictions to keep up with changing times. Almost 25 years after his first Broadway success, ''A Thousand Clowns,'' he is still writing roughly the same play - the comedy about the cranky but endearing New York eccentric who refuses to capitulate peacefully to the crass workaday world. Mr. Gardner's new variation on the theme, now available in an attractive production at the American Place Theater, is titled ''I'm Not Rappaport,'' and there's a valor to it. During much of this playwright's career, nonconformity has been fashionable, but these days, it's not. Mr. Gardner, like his on-stage heroes, stubbornly continues to say what he thinks.

One only wishes that he did so with more dramatic verve and less preaching. In spite of its occasionally funny, flavorsome lines and pervasive sweetness, ''I'm Not Rappaport'' often seems didactic and repetitive. Mr. Gardner's characters tend to be either lovable lunatics or uptight pills, and the outcomes of their unambiguous confrontations are always predictable. While the author wants the audience to wake up and question the humdrum patterns of bourgeois life, his stacked theatrical technique achieves the reverse effect: We're lulled into tranquillity, rather than stimulated into self-examination, by the easy moral victories that the hero achieves over his antagonists.

That hero is Nat (Judd Hirsch), a cantankerous octogenarian who remains an unregenerate, Gompers-bred socialist of the old Daily Worker school. Though slowed by the infirmities of age, Nat still keeps the rabble-rousing faith - whether by obstreperously protesting the meat prices at Gristede's or by hectoring his adult daughter (Cheryl Giannini), a one-time antiwar firebrand who has now sold out to the mercenary splendors of Great Neck. Nat is such a consummate humanitarian that he not only champions the rights of the elderly and the poor but even defends his own mugger as a fellow victim of the city's dog-eat-dog Social Darwinism.

Nat's daughter, I needn't tell you, would like him to settle safely in a senior citizens' enclave. But Nat stubbornly holds his ground, the ground being the Central Park bench where he spends every afternoon kibbitzing with another aged man, an ailing, black, apartment-house superintendent nicknamed Midge (Cleavon Little). For much of the play, which unfolds entirely in the park, the two old geezers perform a series of mild, cross-cultural ''Sunshine Boys'' routines. Some of the bits are canned -''I was smoking dope when you were eating matzoh balls,'' says Midge -but a few are amusing: Nat reenacts the comic Willie Howard's most famous vaudeville sketch (the source of Mr. Gardner's title), and Midge pays vocal tribute to his own idol, Joe Turner. While the pals' other conversations are often treacly reveries about long-lost loves or urban decline, Mr. Gardner's writing rises to an affecting pitch when Midge describes the sad deterioration of his eyesight or when Nat mourns Stalin's betrayal of his lifelong ideals.

These exchanges are periodically interrupted by the callow, meddling young folks whom Nat must outwit. In addition to the daughter, the interlopers include a neighborhood tough (Jace Alexander), a cocaine dealer (Ray Baker) and an apartment-house tenants' committee representative (Michael Tucker) who wants to fire Midge. The plotting is clumsy - and, in Act II, preposterously melodramatic - but it does allow Mr. Hirsch to perform some set comic turns. To disarm intruders, Nat spins the tallest of imaginary tales and variously impersonates an undercover agent, a hot-headed litigator and even a Mafia Godfather.

While Mr. Hirsch's voice often seems more youthful than his credibly geriatric makeup, his brash, ineffable New York Jewishness is well suited to Nat. The actor is utterly persuasive as a man who will angrily shout ''Strike!'' or ''Cossacks!'' at the slightest provocation, out of an undying belief that ''the proper response to outrages is still to be outraged.'' If Mr. Hirsch's burlesque guises have an excessively cute sameness about them, it's nonetheless fun to watch him sing ''Puttin' on the Ritz'' while playfully tapping out the rhythm with his walker. When the reality of old age sinks in later on, Mr. Hirsch briefly shrinks into a moving embodiment of defeat and decrepitude.

Mr. Little is a winning foil as Midge, but Mr. Gardner, perhaps less assured at portraying a black man, shortchanges the character. Mr. Tucker and Miss Giannini humanize the spoilsports, and the other actors capably delineate roles that amount to little more than plot cogs. The florid incidents of violence aside, the director Daniel Sullivan smartly underplays scenes that threaten to curdle completely into abject sentimentality or bombast.

The staging benefits further from the designer Tony Walton's elaborate and loving evocation of the nook below a Central Park bridge, as well as from the autumnal palette of Pat Collins's lighting. But these and the evening's other passing pleasures still leave us more soothed than involved. While the iconoclastic Nat tirelessly insists on ''shaking things up,'' his free spirit is domesticated by Mr. Gardner's refusal to shake up the formula that tames his independent-minded play.


The New York Times
06/07/1985

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