I'm Not Rappaport by Herb Gardner. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. Set design by Tony Walton. Costume design by Teresa Snider-Stein. Lighting design by Pat Collins. Sound design by Peter Fitzgerald. Hair and make-up design by Michael Laudati. Fight direction by Rick Sordelet. Cast: Judd Hirsch, Ben Vereen, with Mimi Lieber, Anthony Arkin, Steven Boyer, Jeb Brown, Tanya Clarke.
It was just a little over sixteen years ago that Herb Gardner's I'm Not Rappaport arrived on Broadway at the Booth Theatre. Upon seeing the new revival that just opened at the same theatre with one of the original stars, it's tempting to suggest that no time at all has passed.
Though time, of course, has passed, you'd never know it judging by the stars. Judd Hirsch (recreating his role from the original production) and Ben Vereen tackle their roles with energy and verve enough to make you feel that, though they're supposed to be combative octogenarians, they're really 30-year olds in disguise.
Therein lies the real magic of I'm Not Rappaport. The script itself is frequently nothing special. It has a very "cute" feeling about it, peppered freely with moments as calculated to elicit "awws" from the audience as gentle rolling laughter. And the characters Gardner has drawn for his lead actors are perhaps overdone as it is; the cantankerous Jewish Nat (Hirsch) and the equally cantankerous but more laid-back Midge (Vereen) seem to be a collection of ideas about the elderly not exactly designed to smash preconceptions.
But with Hirsch and Vereen onstage, everything just seems to click. Vereen's frequently vacant expressions and understated delivery of many of his lines seem perfectly natural, yet provide unnaturally large levels of humor. Hirsch looks like he's working harder, but he has to - his Nat never seems to have the same past, present, or future from one moment to the next. Hirsch keeps them all unquestionably grounded in the same place.
It is to their credit that whatever the two of them do apart is nothing compared to what they're able to accomplish together. When they help each other out with a daunting task, when one is taking the other to task for some behavior he doesn't like, or even when the two of them are just sitting laughing uncontrollably, their performances together are comic gold.
And it's that, more than anything else, that holds the audience at rapt attention from beginning to end. Vereen and Hirsch are able to mold the show, whatever else it might be, into an absolute crowd pleaser. You never need more than the two of them.
You get more, of course, in the presence of a couple of subplots that seem to exist for the primary (if understandable) reason of showing different sides of Nat and Midge. Nat must deal with his overly concerned daughter (Mimi Lieber), Midge with the representative (Anthony Arkin) from the apartment building at which he's lived and worked for decades, and the two men must deal with other threats; a street thug (Steven Boyer), and the drug dealer (Jeb Brown) tormenting a young woman (Tanya Clarke).
The performances are all fine (especially Lieber's), but it's during these moments that Vereen and Hirsch are less able to hold I'm Not Rappaport together, though it's through no fault of theirs. Each of these elements suggests a New York of a very different era, one that has changed dramatically since the show was first presented. Nat's Communist tendencies and the terrors to be found lurking in Central Park are less relevant to the world of today than the world of 1985.
While not exactly dated, I'm Not Rappaport also no longer seems topical, and these moments come across as slightly startling and effecting than Gardner most likely intended. Director Daniel Sullivan has done all he can with these scenes, but some - especially when Nat and Midge are mugged - have the slightly stale scent of an era (thankfully) past.
Other than this, Sullivan holds the play together pretty well, keeping things moving and keeping things funny. Tony Walton, who also worked on the original production, provides a charming adaptation of real life in his depiction of the lake area in Central Park. Pat Collins's lighting evokes October perfectly, and Teresa Snider-Stein's costumes and Michael Laudati's make-up do particularly well at making Hirsch and Vereen look old enough to make the roles believable.
But clothes and make-up can only take an actor so far; Vereen and Hirsch masterfully take their performances - and the show - the rest of the way. Nat and Midge are both in their 80s, and Vereen and Hirsch have a few years before they get there. But if the youthful vigor, playfulness, and humor they bring to their roles here are any indication, another revival of this play in 20 years could easily still find them both too young.