Corrections or additions?

This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the March 6, 2002

edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Review: `I’m Not Rappaport’

In Herb Gardner’s consistently entertaining comedy

"I’m Not Rappaport," the joy of social rebellion, the riches

of non-conformist behavior and the general, but most genial, assault

on the establishment is wittily filtered through a pair of

octogenarian

habitues of Central Park. Although 17 years have passed since Judd

Hirsch first played the part of the formidably contentious Nat, a

role that won him a Tony Award, he is back in character and delivering

as fresh and as feisty a performance as one would want. Hirsch, who

won his second Tony for "Conversations With My Father" (also

by Gardner), returns to the Paper Mill where he recently scored in

"Art," in a role he played on Broadway and on the road.

Perhaps the bigger news is that Ben Vereen, who is playing the role

of Midge, Nat’s grouchy and perpetually duped foil, is a knockout,

in the role he played in 1989 in a production at San Francisco’s

Theater

on the Square. Together, under the vigorous direction of Daniel

Sullivan,

Hirsch and Vereen are one helluva team. This co-production (a virtual

carbon copy of the original) between the Paper Mill Playhouse, Coconut

Grove Playhouse, and Ford’s Theater should receive a warm reception

on Broadway when it opens this spring at the Booth Theater (the same

theater it played in 1985).

The confrontational, autumnal milieu has been handsomely recreated

by set designer Michael Anania to include a stone bridge, leaf-strewn

paths, and the obligatory park bench, all atmospherically illuminated

by lighting designer Pat Collins’ day-into-night effects. But it

mostly

has the pleasure of Hirsch and Vereen’s sterling company.

As a courageous dreamer Cervantes would no doubt

recognize,

Hirsch appears, this time around, even more demonstrably effective

as the habitual fabricator whose Quixotic fantasies have totally

infiltrated,

for better or for worse, his daily life. "I do not tell lies.

I make alterations," he says to justify his resourceful

imagination.

But Nat is no lunatic. He is a fighter who uses his keen mind to

champion

the oppressed, the maligned, and especially his bench pal Midge

(Vereen),

a despairing black apartment house superintendent.

"Stop playing 3-card Monte with my mind," says a defiantly

independent but vulnerable Midge, who, try as he does, cannot restrain

Nat from crusading for him when he is told he will be dismissed when

the apartment goes co-op. Nat, like the social upstart with communist

leanings he once was, cannot resist fighting for a cause.

Together, these two-sparring bespectacled elders refuse to be

intimidated

by the inevitable intrusion of the head of the tenants committee

(Anthony

Arken), a mugger (Steven Boyer), a dope pusher (Jeb Brown), or even

Nat’s meddlesome daughter from Great Neck (Mimi Lieber). If the

efforts

of these two cataract-afflicted cronies to address the shadowy,

sometimes

frightening world around them seems, at times, a little too flagrantly

joke-filled and fabricated, Hirsch’s ingenuous performance almost

convinced me he actually was "an escaped Cuban terrorist named

Hernando in deep cover, or better yet, a Hollywood mogul.

However unsteady on his feet, Vereen is right on the beat for a

rousing

rendition of "Alabamy Bound." Just as quick with a retort

to Hirsch’s smug marijuana puffing ("I was smokin’ dope while

you was still eatin’ matzo balls"), Midge, especially in Vereen’s

expressive hands (the same hands that conjured up the magic in

"Pippin")

is no second banana to Hirsch’s formidable routines. The peasant-chic

attired (by costumer Teresa Snider-Stein) Lieber is excellent as Nat’s

oldest, middle-aged and wearily tolerant married daughter, the only

one of his adult children who still speaks to him. The strong

supporting

cast is instrumental in helping us feel the truth of a world that

Gardner has written about so wisely and wonderfully. Go, enjoy, and

don’t forget to bring along grandpa.

— Simon Saltzman

I’m Not Rappaport, Paper Mill, Brookside Drive, Millburn,

973-376-4343. $29 to $59. Show runs to March 24.


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