Rollie Dick ages better than the script
Herb Gardner’s I’m Not Rappaport won a Tony Award as New York’s best play of 1985. I wonder if, instead, it shouldn’t have won as that year’s best ‘vehicle.’ That’s the old fashioned theater term applied to a script that lives and moves and has its being solely to showcase the talents of a leading actor or pair of actors.
Gardner has a way with slick dialogue and cute characters. In Nat Moyer, he’s created an over-the-top, heart-warming, big talking octogenarian Jewish laugh-getter. Every Costello, of course, needs his Abbott, so Gardner supplies Nat and the script with a reluctant, put-upon black sidekick named Midge Carter. From their favorite bench in Central Park, Nat jolts and amazes Midge, repeatedly worming in and out of tough situations, by turning himself into a succession of funny, improvised stereotype alter egos. Without a heavy helping of shared bravado and deft timing from this central pair, the play would fall flat. Magic Circle’s new production of this pleasant old chestnut is blessed with winning lead performances by Rollie Dick and Avondina Wills.
As Nat, Dick presents us with a man who’s a master of bilge, balderdash and a farmyard product with that same initial. To keep Midge from being fired from his job as an apartment house super, Nat becomes a ruthless left wing lawyer straight out of a 1930s Clifford Odets melodrama. To rid Central Park of a thug in cowboy boots, he changes into Don Corleone in The Godfather. Dick’s clowning and Wills’ eye-rolling reactions to all of this had the Friday night Magic Circle audience howling with laughter, and it mattered little that most of Act One consisted simply of funny dialogue with very little forward plot action. True, Midge’s job was temporarily saved and, then, shortly before the intermission, Nat got stabbed. Yet, when the new characters and actual dramatic action started up in Act 2, they weren’t really as interesting as those two funny men just trading wisecracks on their park bench.
Enjoyable as it all was, there were, for me, two problems. One was highlighted in a TalkinBroadway theater review by Matthew Murray of the 2002 Broadway revival with Judd Hirsch reprising his role as Nat. Murray noted that with the passing of time, the play “(now) 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”
The second drawback is structural. The dialogue suggests that Nat has depths of wisdom and a witty slant on social problems ranging from the challenges of old age to the deadening effects of consumerism and gated suburbia. But his attacks on these wrongs consist of doing the same thing over and over again: he bamboozles the bad guys by acting out another new comic character. It’s kind of like an evening of brilliant standup comedy with only one basic routine.
One result is that subsidiary characters have a hard row to hoe. Flip Baldwin and Kalyn Shubnell come off best as, respectively, Midge’s oily apartment house boss and Nat’s well-meaning daughter with plans for reining in her Pop’s uninhibited antics. We care enough about these two for their struggles with Nat to engage us. But three other characters, a protection artist named Gilley, spookily played by Daniel Ruacho, plus a seedy cowboy crook and his pretty victim, both well acted by Brandon Burns and Amanda Schemmel, are extraneous added ingredients. Their performances are fine but it’s obvious these three people have been trotted on simply to supply Nat with a new set-up for his central routine.
The play is briskly directed by Elsa Con and fun to watch as a 20th century period piece.
I’m Not Rappaport runs Friday through Sunday, through Sept. 15. Photo by Bucky Johnson.