I'm Not Rappaport

Paper Mill Playhouse - February 2002

Reviewed by John Kenrick

Back in 1985, my then-boyfriend arranged for us to see a hot off-Broadway hit. As a struggling producer's assistant, he was unable to wrangle seats. Instead, we had to act as ushers. As a struggling writer, I wasn't about to complain. Ushering was a great way to see a show for free. You showed up a half hour early, and after pointing theatergoers in the right directions, took any unoccupied seat. In this case, The American Place Theater (a glorified basement just east of Times Square) was so packed that we wound up on cushions in the center aisle. And so it was that I first encountered and fell in love with Herb Gardner's I'm Not Rappaport.

Rappaport went on to Broadway, winning the Tony for Best Play and racking up more than a thousand performances. My then-boyfriend went on to become the Academy Award winning producer of American Beauty. As for me. . . well, I'm still a struggling writer, but at least I got a real seat this time around. I also got to see what is possibly the best production yet of this great American play.

I'm Not Rappaport involves two octogenarians who meet daily on a secluded bench in Manhattan's Central Park. Midge, the black superintendent of a posh apartment building, is both infuriated and fascinated by Nat, a chatty Jewish retiree whose intriguing stories about his past and present are not necessarily true. As employers and family members try to ease them into obscurity, and street thugs prey upon them, each refuses to relinquish his precarious grip independence. The fact that their battle against time is hopeless only makes it all the more glorious to watch.

Playwright Herb Gardner, whose work includes Conversations With My Father and A Thousand Clowns, specializes in finding the profound truths that vibrate within everyday encounters. He turns the mundane picture of two old men sitting on a park bench into a vibrant celebration of life, ringing with the unexpected eloquence of the human spirit refusing to surrender even when further battle seems hopeless. I'm Not Rappaport is a powerful condemnation of the way our society casts aside the elderly -- a process one of his characters calls "abortion at the other end." There are laughs galore in this play, but it also offers some disturbing observations about growing old. Nat tells us "There's nothing easy about eighty," a fact many people ignore until they get there. No wonder this play has remained such a favorite.

The handsome production currently at Paper Mill -- but already set for Broadway's Booth Theater this Spring -- recreates Tony Walton's original ravishing set (flawlessly supervised by Michael Annania). Combined with Pat Collins' deceptively subtle lighting effects, it gives you the eerie feeling that a real piece of Central Park has somehow landed on stage. The new costumes by Teresa Snider-Stein strike all the right notes for New York in the 1980's, and original director Daniel Sullivan (who just won a Tony for Proof) brings it all together with the sure professionalism that marks all his work.

Nat's daughter Clara is one of those trying to reign him in, but Mimi Lieber plays her with enough frustrated sensitivity to win our sympathy. Anthony Arkin is a hoot as the building president who's attempts to fire Midge crumble in the face of Nat's machinations. Tanya Clarke is poignantly believable as the lovely art student with a dark secret, and Steven Boyer and Jeb Brown are handsome yet chillingembodiments of menace.

I can guarantee Broadway will not see a finer performance this year than Judd Hirsch as Nat. His tour-de-force performance won him a Tony seventeen years ago, but it is so much richer and more moving today that he deserves a basketful of fresh honors. Despite the physical limitations of a character who is barely able to walk, Hirsch commands the stage with all the certainty and style of a master at work. If anyone doubts that he is one of the greatest stage actors of our time, they need only catch him in this production. It is the kind of performance that theater lovers live for -- a lesson in great stagecraft, and a glorious gift to everyone who sees it. That such a performance is not eligible for a Tony -- just because he won a Tony for it once before -- is nothing less than criminal.

It doesn't hurt that Hirsh's costar this time around is Ben Vereen, who shines with a brilliance that is all his own. His stint last season in Fosse proved that his razzle dazzle musical talents are very much intact, but he sets all that aside here. He brings the wily, matter-of-fact Midge to life with irresistible gentility, making him the perfect foil for Nat's reckless bravado. This being Vereen's first time in the role, he is quite eligible for Tony consideration -- I will be shocked if he is not one of the nominees this May.

Its a rare thing to see a standing ovation at Paper Mill, especially for a non-musical. This production of I'm Not Rappaport had the place on its feet cheering. If you want to see one of this season's Broadway hits ahead of the pack, a quick train ride out to Millburn is called for. Was it the same as seeing it from a floor cushion all those years ago? Hell no -- thanks to Hirsh, Vereen and company, this time was better than ever.

Ran at Paper Mill thru March 24, 2002

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