Regional Reviews: St. Louis
I'm Not Rappaport
Also see Bob's review of Circle Mirror Transformation
That's the question at the heart of Herb Gardner's play about two old men getting their affairs in order, like comical trolls under a bridge in Central Park. But with actors Sam Hack and Archie Coleman, all the little dramas of old age become great monstrous windmills, challenging their wits and nobility; and all the real monsters are (ultimately) reduced to passing dreams in the head of a 20th century Don Quixote.
Hawthorne Theatre's latest production creates a strange, irresistible accretion of fantasy that makes you believe in getting old in spite of the ravages, and a growing sense of powerlessness. It may be because director Peter Banholzer knows when to pull his actors back, and when to turn them loose. I know I spotted at least three places where a more flamboyant actor could have been big and "Broadway," but the director and Mr. Hack wisely chose the calmer, more personal route instead. As a result, you can leave your mawkish sentimentality at home, along with that rotting pumpkin on the front porch, because this play finds its way to your heart by going right down through your brain.
Archie Coleman is the Sancho Panza of the piece, merging the comedy and tragedy of old black men in the city with so much agility that all his pratfall comedy seems to just happen along the way, even as he's driven to wit's end. Take any one of these little moments of blundering rage or terror or bravado alone, by itself, and all his little gestures might seem silly and meaningless. But put every fit and fight and fear together, and you'll behold a truly brilliant performance.
The calendar may say autumn, but it seems more like springtime for some of the town's most dedicated actors. Nancy Lubowitz (as Mr. Hack's daughter) reveals the maddening realism that drove her apart from her agit-prop father, and still manages to work her way back to adoring him, in spite of his maniacal meddling. That turning point comes in a well-deserved (literal) moment in the spotlight for Mr. Hack, reveling in a childhood memory of an impassioned early labor rally.
The highly respected Tim Callahan also pops in, completely unrecognizable in cowboy gear, to provide the final, menacing urban threat. Darren R. Wilson is excellent as a young thug, and an actress with the unlikely name of Charity Faith Hope does beautifully as a mysterious young artist. Bob Veatch is good and natural, but seems a little out of his depth now and then as a co-op building board member, who must serve as the bearer of bad news. It's important to say, however, that a tenacious director (or assistant director) might be able to work an actor through such problems. In community theater, it's not always the actor's fault.
But Mr. Hack bears most of the weight of the show with tremendous skill and ease, dreaming the impossible dream and spinning a hundred compelling tales that may or may not withstand scientific rigor. And, simultaneously, he "un-bundles" an entire era of American history that is nearly forgotten and often reviled and rarely even discussed anymorereminding us that the remorseless disenfranchisement of the poor has been going on a lot longer than most people are willing to admit. Yet his performance never becomes pedantic or contrived. Combined with an insatiable playfulness and honorable outrage, he makes everything about this show work very, very beautifully indeed.
Through November 13, 2011, at the Florissant Civic Center Theatre, just below Parker Road on Waterford Drive, 63033. For information call (314) 921-5678 or visit them online at www.hawthorneplayers.com. I sometimes have a little trouble getting there from across town, as the Civic Center is not on a major street (it's a couple of blocks south of extreme north Lindbergh Blvd.). The closest interstate (I-270) links via "South" New Florissant Rd. (going north), and then Rue St. Catherine Street (going east about a mile), and then north again on Waterford. But it's well worth the trip.