Frumpy old men.
Judd Hirsch and Ben Vereen
in I'm Not Rappaport
(Photo: Patrick Farrell)
Frumpy old men.
Judd Hirsch and Ben Vereen
in I'm Not Rappaport
(Photo: Patrick Farrell)
Curmudgeons are a constant source of amusement for ticket buyers; certainly that's what Herb Gardner thinks, among many other playwrights. Murray in A Thousand Clowns is a middle-aged example, and there's another in Thieves. Perhaps I'm Not Rappaport began in Gardner's busy brain with the idea that if one railing codger is rich in potential, two railing curmudgeons would be exponentially better. Wow, he must have thought--dueling curmudgeons! And so I'm Not Rappaport was born, and went on in 1985 to win the Tony, the Outer Critics Circle Award, and the John Gassner Award as the year's best play.

Of course, you don't get far with a piece about curmudgeons if you don't have the right actors to play them. And now that I'm Not Rappaport is back on Broadway after a brief tour, looking not so much like a revival as a continuation, Gardner is blessed with very right players in the focal roles; also blessed are Gardner's audiences. Judd Hirsch, who won another of the 1985 Tonys as Nat Moyer, has returned and may be even better in a part he's made his own and clearly intends to hold onto for dear life.

As Moyer, Hirsch is a gabby and meddling socialist who holds forth from Central Park benches. As Moyer fabricates his way through stories about past accomplishments, he makes trouble for anyone who gets involved with him. No matter what Moyer is up to, Hirsch fills every moment with marvelous actor's notions. He's a master of inflection and understands how manipulators use their voices to cajole and intimidate. He's figured out innumerable ways to go about Moyer's incessant browbeating. Just watching him eat a tuna fish sandwich is a treat--his chewing is a hoot. And most creditably, he never acts as if the other actors are only on stage because the script calls for them to be there. His listening is every bit as shrewd and focused as his declaiming.

Hirsch's return in a part he cherishes and relishes is a gratifying kind of reassurance about an actor's abilities. But Ben Vereen as Midge Carter, the boiler-room man who shares Moyer's bench and finds himself helplessly caught up in the damage that ensues, goes beyond reassurance. He's a revelation. In the years since Vereen was the galvanizing force of Jesus Christ Superstar and Pippin, he's demonstrated he is more than a song-and-dance man, and his work here proves he's much more. Bearded and tremulous, he is all but unrecognizable. As he tangled with Hirsch, I began to wonder whether I was watching an understudy, and I kept wondering until somewhere in the second act. It was then, after he'd been required to fall in a dead faint, grapple with a park bully, and endure other indignities, that he flashed one of those 64-teeth grins and I knew for sure this was Vereen--showing unexpected and moving versatility.

Versatility is definitely what I'm Not Rappaport calls for, because histrionic flash is one way to keep viewers from poking at holes in the material. Here's a play that, as its title (a reference to a Willie Howard comedy sketch) hints, resembles a long vaudeville routine more than it does a substantial comedy-drama. Gardner's gag lines are consistently deft, but they don't add up to much more than a likeable skit. That's even though Gardner goes through the motions of making his script appear to be more. He raises issues about shunting the elderly aside: Carter is fired from his position by a tenant's association head (Anthony Arkin) who tracks him to the park, and Moyer is told by his long-suffering daughter, Clara (Mimi Lieber), that he better shape up or face court action. Gardner introduces a hoodlum (Steven Boyer) who extorts walk-you-home money from Carter on a daily basis, and he brings on a drug dealer (Jeb Brown) who's menacing a client (Tanya Clarke) unable to pay a longstanding bill. But these contrivances don't ring true. Perhaps aging New Yorkers are preyed on by teens, and perhaps many are too frightened to go to authorities, but Moyer doesn't fit the profile of those who'd acquiesce. Nor is it likely that, no matter how foolhardy Moyer is, he and Carter would end up wrestling with the drug dealer over a knife.

?And that?s where we sat in the original production...?
?And that?s where we sat in
the original production...?
On a deeper level, Gardner has written a play about illusions and the effort expended to keep them intact. In fibbing so compulsively and for so long, Moyer has turned into a man who must dissemble in order to survive. He's gotten so good at making up tales that he regularly takes others in; Carter is just the latest dupe. But in American dramatic literature, there are two kinds of plays about illusions. The best of them strip illusion away to get to harsh, even unforgiving, truths. The less commendable plays about illusions take up the subject and then step back, too timid to risk losing audience approval. I'm Not Rappaport is one of the latter. Its final events imply that sustaining friendship requires maintaining certain illusions; but if that's so, it isn't such a comforting admission. And since at fade-out Gardner opts for the cute over the cutting, his script has to be rated as no less--but definitely no more--than a well-crafted divertissement.

In fulfilling that limited but energetic potential, he's immensely helped by director Daniel Sullivan, associated once again with the enterprise, abetted by a skilled cast. Mimi Lieber makes some poignant points about what it is to be a loving but pushed-to-the-limits daughter. Anthony Arkin has the ability all the men in the talented Arkin family share: he is the embodiment of vulnerable sincerity. As the bad boys and the not-so-good girl, Steven Boyer, Jeb Brown and Tanya Clarke, respectively, play victimizer and victim neatly. And everyone benefits from Tony Walton's set, which replicates a section of Olmsted's park that lies near an underpass by the carousel; sound designer Peter Fitzgerald makes sure the carousel organ is heard oom-pah-pahing from time to time. Teresa Snider-Stein did the costumes, aware of just what kind of muffler an old fellow traveler would wear and with what soiled tie and sweater-vest. Pat Collins supplied appropriate late autumn Central Park lighting, and Rick Sordelet staged the repeated forays into knife-play and fisticuffs.

Sordelet will never be called on to stage a tussle between author and patrons. They're too giddily adoring Hirsch and Vereen to want to put up any kind of fight.