I can appreciate a playwright who describes his line of work as "the Las Vegas of art forms, and the odds are terrible." Herb Gardner wrote few plays, but he did hit the jackpot at least twice: once with "A Thousand Clowns" in the 1960's, and again with "I'm Not Rappaport" in the 1980's. Blackfriars Theatre's loving revival of this semi-forgotten play proves why it is worth remembering.
Gardner's special area was limning the urban misfit, New York City division. The Blackfriars program describes the hero of "A Thousand Clowns" as "iconoclastic, slovenly, and free-spirited," which sums up a typical Gardner hero nicely. In "I'm Not Rappaport," the free-spirited ones are Nat (Fred Nuernberg), a gloriously cranky former Communist Party member still waving the red flag, and Midge (Reuben Josephe Tapp), a building superintendent facing a forced retirement. Both men are in their 80's, and meet daily in Central Park for ... let's just call it free-form conversation.
"I'm Not Rappaport" begins and ends in mid-conversation, and is pretty much plotless in between, but it's full of NYC atmosphere of a certain vintage: the early Reagan era (it's set in 1982), when many people like Nat and Midge were still around, with their memories of the Depression, the Communists of the 1930's, and World War II. The Great Economic Trickle-Down has begun, and there's a heartlessness and desperation in the atmosphere, personified by a thug (Ron Heerkens Jr.) who extorts money every day from the men; a tenants' group president intent on firing Midge; and a drug dealer who harasses a young girl (Christina Simmons) as well as the two men. (The group president and the drug dealer are played by the same actor, Adam Petzold; I don't know if that's Gardner's idea or from director John Haldoupis, but I like it.)
Much more sympathetic, but just as threatening in her own way, is Nat's daughter Clara (Ruth Bellavia), who is trying to get her father to move to an assisted living center, or worse, to her house in Great Neck. Clara is a former red-diaper baby and former student radical turned real-estate agent, and to her father at least, a nagging disappointment.
The men fight back in various ways to all these threats, Midge with his fists and Nat with fake identities and fantastic stories. But they're not enough; at the end the men have to go their separate ways, but before they do, Nat has one last story...
I think you have to be a certain age to fully enjoy "I'm Not Rappaport" (for example, old enough to know what a red-diaper baby is, or that the play's title is taken from an old vaudeville routine). I saw this play when it was fairly new and thought it was pretty funny and not much more; about three decades later, I am more moved by its view of old people trying to keep the inevitable at bay, and the bitterness underlying much of its humor.
You don't have to be any age in particular to enjoy the leading actors in "I'm Not Rappaport." If Haldoupis chose this play with Nuernberg and Tapp in mind, I wouldn't blame him at all: they're terrific, capturing every tic, shuffle, and outrageous infirmity of feisty old age to perfection. And they effortlessly suggest two friends who have known one another forever. Tapp is even more impressive at the moments when his fear and confusion show through his bravado. Nuernberg -- outstanding in grand roles like Salieri in "Amadeus" and Henry II in "The Lion in Winter" -- might seem miscast for the role of Nat, who like many of Gardner's characters is a motor-mouthed Borscht Belt type, but he brings a wonderful downtrodden dignity to the role and certainly doesn't miss any of the humor.
With two such strong leading roles, Gardner's other characters can seem like afterthoughts, though he does provide an involving scene between Nat and Clara (with Bellavia showing just the right balance of anger and concern); and his nasty characters really are nasty -- they create a jolt when they're onstage. Petzold does two different kinds of sleaze, and is particularly good in his take on Yuppie scum, a term that I suppose was new when this play was written. Christina Simmons' appearance as a girl pursued by the dealer is brief but harrowing; Gardner's decision not to follow up on her character is even more disturbing, showing how easily someone can disappear in a huge city.
John Haldoupis' set design is so detailed in its evocation of an elegant but somewhat faded corner of Central Park, from the lights on the bridge overheard to the leaves painted on the floor, that I spent the intermission gazing at it. Ted Plant's subtle lighting design is the very definition of "atmospheric." Their inspired work gives an elegiac, autumnal air to a play I wouldn't have associated with those adjectives.