Briar Street Theatre

In I’m Not Rappaport, Herb Gardner’s cantankerous and universal comedy, two old men rage eloquently against the dying of their light. J.B. Priestley put it bluntly: “One of the delights known to age, and beyond the grasp of youth, is that of Not Going.” These two codgers will go down fighting in full geriatric glory.

From his 60s hit A Thousand Clowns to this 1986 Obie and Tony winner, Herb Gardner’s plays are filled with sympathy for the eccentric underdog and loathing for standardized souls. But he never poured more life into any character than into these irascible geezers who uneasily share a Central Park bench in the autumn of 1982. Before we see the last of Nat and Midge, they somehow manage to take in the world. They spend two and a half hours with us, but, going by emotional time, you feel you have known them all your life. (Though in the second act Gardner makes the mistake of thinking his old men are not entertainment enough and throws in a bogus confrontation with a drug thug.)

Squinting through his thick glasses, toting his near empty briefcase, and flailing about with his cane, Nat is a happy misfit who eats conventions for breakfast. Modeled on the playwright’s labor-leader uncle, Nat is an unrepentant old-left agitator who sees every problem as part of the class struggle–and as a perfect excuse for cascades of firebrand rhetoric. He’s the sort of true believer who will try to persuade a mugger to join in solidarity against the real robbers, the rich.

Nat is also a master of disguise. He relates his life as a spy, crusading lawyer, or Mafia don. As Midge puts it, “You ain’t even friendly with the truth.” But when aroused, Nat can turn himself into a “one-man reign of terror,” as he and his so-called Human Rights Strike Force defend the oppressed and downtrodden–namely Midge.

Except Midge doesn’t want to be fought for. Self-effacing where Nat is bellicose, this octogenarian, who calls himself “black and blind,” is the once-efficient superintendent for a building that’s gone condo–and no longer needs him. Once a boxer and the busy husband to five wives, Midge is slowly sinking into the torpor of old age. “We’ve done the sin of leaving too slow,” he tells Nat. This “living ghost,” as Nat calls him, can no longer see what’s hitting him. (Midge gives a strangely beautiful description of how glaucoma feels to its victims: Midge’s dreams are sharper and more colorful than the blurred, bluish world he wakes up to.)

So what if they don’t have sight? Nat says. They still have vision. Together they’ll prove they’re not invisible. Nat heatedly asks the yuppie tenant who wants to fire Midge, What’s the point of collecting old things if you throw away old people? (“abortion at the other end” is the memorable phrase). If you fear the old, he says, you fear your future, because “we’re the coming attractions.” Armed with his “dangerous mouth,” Nat resolves to become Midge’s private champion–as if Midge weren’t afflicted enough.

In the overplotted second act, Gardner doubles the crises for Nat and Midge. Nat’s daughter Clara appears, a disillusioned radical who’s tired of covering for her dad’s socialist scams. She wants Nat to move in with her and give up his career as Central Park’s rabble-rouser, and she threatens to take legal action to become his guardian if he doesn’t. Nat and a reluctant Midge go on to ineptly defend a pretty coke-addict artist who’s threatened by a slimy pusher with a fake cowboy accent–a near repeat of the first act’s encounter with a mugger.

Putting aside the repetitions and too-safe ending, what works in I’m Not Rappaport is the vibrant exchanges the men share, like the vaudeville sketch that gives the play its title. Punched home by Gardner’s surefire one-liners, Nat and Midge’s feisty squabbles and grudging reconciliations feel as real as overheard bus conversations.

Produced by Sheila Henaghan and Howard Platt, and directed by Sheldon Patinkin, this revival is a loving celebration of the two boilerplate New Yorkers and their resilience. Though Shelley Berman has long specialized in portraying hapless characters, the Nat he shows us is a master manipulator who takes contagious delight in his fraud. Berman brings a lot more to Nat than his famous sardonic deadpan and rubber face. He shows us, especially in the final scene, the price Nat pays to protect his integrity and the need that makes him play so many roles.

Putting to rest most memories of his Saturday Night Live antics, Garrett Morris makes Midge his own man–a bleary-eyed, sassy old grumbler who’s as full of pride as aches and who desperately wants to make sense of what he can’t see. Morris sometimes falls back on Redd Foxx’s drunken shuffle and growling delivery, but when snapping a howler comeback line, he makes much of a rich role.

Everyone else is necessarily support, but Nancy Linari digs deeply into the long scene where Clara tries to reach the father she knows lurks somewhere under Nat’s gruff shell. Kevin Michael Doyle threatens well as an unregenerate thug, likewise Thomas Anthony Quinn as the cowboy pusher. Ellyn Duncan agonizes appropriately in her cameo as the cowboy’s terrified victim.

The three I’m Not Rappaport sets I’ve seen had exactly the same Central Park picture: Romanesque bridge, autumn branches, and a vague big- city backdrop. However made-to- order, Tony Walton’s set is nicely warmed up by Michael Merritt’s amber-hued lighting, which, except for the filigreed bridge lamps and the exotic cityscape, fades beautifully to blue. If only New York were as noble as these postcard vistas.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.