SAN DIEGO--Playwright Herb Gardner was a master storyteller. He penned Conversations With My Father, A Thousand Clowns, The Goodbye People and I’m Not Rappaport, among other screen scripts, all in the too short 66 years of his life. He was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for Conversations and a Tony for Rappaport along with a Writers Guild Lifetime Achievement Award. Jud Hirsh (Taxi, Numbers) who played the Jewish character Nat in Rappaport on Broadway and Eddie Ross in Conversations won two Best Actor Tony Awards.
Gardner grew up in a ‘very Jewish section of Brooklyn.' Years later in speaking about his play Conversations With My Father he was quoted as saying “I was born in Coney Island. Who should I write about: Swedes?” He also once confessed that he thought the Italians were just happy Jews.
That sense of humor encompass his writing and so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that in I’m Not Rappaport, which is receiving an exceptional showing at the Scripps Ranch Theatre, that one of the characters would be Jewish with all the hang-ups, trappings and intellectual leftist ideas that the playwright heard about growing up and hanging out in his Dad’s lower East Side bar. ‘They discussed anything from Trotsky to egg salad,’ Gardner recalled.
Nat (Charlie Riendeau) and Midge (Antonio “TJ” Johnson) are the two protagonists in I'm Not Rappaport. Both are pushing well beyond retirement, but Midge is still working as a boiler operator and building super (for over 41 years), is almost blind and manages (so far) to keep under the radar from the owners of an older apartment complex. In his past life he was a boxer and was married five times and is an interminable romantic.
Nat, well we don’t know what he really does until the end of the play, (we think) but for all intents and purposes, he is an 81 year old Jewish radical who has an opinion on everything from how the Federal Government should be governed to Tort cases involving Labor Unions and everything in between. His righteous indignation and sense of fair play along with a determination to change the world is a fascinating study of a generation long ago dismissed. Riendeau is superb at drawing us into Nat’s world.
(Again quoting Gardner “ In my history there were these extraordinary guys, men and women, all immigrants, passionate people, who believed a great, humane kind of America existed- and when it didn’t, they decided to make up the difference.")
The men find themselves in Central Park sharing the same park bench (much to Midge's consternation) every day like clockwork. It’s Nat who embodies these traits that Gardner writes about with so much affection and Midge who is at the listening end of the conversation. The only thing, on the surface that they share is old age and feistiness. Their backgrounds are as different as night is from day.
Both are fragile. Neither wants to give in to the aging process and each has his own way of coping with the ever-increasing demands old age has heaped on them. One thing is for sure; Nat is not going down without a fight to the end. And if need be, he’ll defend Midge and his rights as well as well as any underdog who comes within walking distance of their park bench.
This leads us to another set of characters who jog, hang out or just plain cause trouble in their little area. You guessed it Nat is head of the Rescue Wagon with Midge listening in disbelief. But a funny thing happens while Midge listens in awe to some of Nat’s fantastic ramblings. He actually goes along with much of what Nat is preaching somewhat like a push me pull you. Watching the two of them is more fun than a burlesque show. But all is not fun and games.
Gardner hits several nerves along the way in this remarkable story of two elderly gents drawn together by a bonding process called (for lack of a better word) community. Ask anyone pushing their eighties where their friends are and a far away look comes over them. Most likely they are gone. In many cases family, society, and the younger generation wants them to quietly go away.
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As is the case with Nat, his daughter Clara (Julie Anderson Sachs) wants him in an elder care facility so she doesn’t have to worry about him. Midge is about to be replaced by a high tech machine, he later learns from Danforth (Max Macke) the new president of the soon to be condo association. Both are in danger, in their minds, of being put out to pasture. When they try to pull off a stunt to protect a young student, Laurie
(Catherine Dupont) they see studying in the park, they get the you know what knocked out of them. Remember Don Quixote?
Unfortunately Gardner never lived to reach the ages of both of characters, but he knew from whence he came. Well, I guess one doesn’t win a Lifetime Achievement Award for nothing.
Putting the right players into the parts of Nat and Midge is the brainchild of director Robert May and boy did he make the right choice. Both of these men are seasoned actors and both deserve awards for their outstanding performances. Johnson, who played the chauffer Hoke Colburn in Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy at the Avo Theatre in Vista and Troy Maxson in August Wilson’s Fences at the Cygnet Theatre, both to critical raves, is again in the driver's seat with another outstanding performance. He’s one of the most natural actors I’ve seen in some time. The nice thing is, he’s that way in person.
Charlie Riendeau is made for the Nat role. His tall stature and presence and wonderful lines places him, as well, at the top of his game. He has a gift for storytelling and his voice is well cadenced and convincing and feisty. He’s funny, serious and true to life all at the same time. And if truth be known, I sort of believe everything he said. Well…don’t tell my own children. Riendeau has been on the San Diego scene for many years and has been consistent in his fine performances as well as in his directorial duties in other theatres around town.
Support from the rest of the cast is also in the plus column. Julie Anderson Sachs is impressive and convincing as the concerned adult child wanting to see her father safe and out of harm’s way. All of her suggestion and ultimatums fall on Nat’s deaf ears as he plans an escape route from his daughter. Max Macke is perfect as the not so perfect Communications instructor while he struggles to tell Midge he is being replaced. Turn about is fair play as when he gets a few sage words from Nat on how some day he too will be replaced by a computer. It is a classic exchange, one that some CEO’s and politicians might take heed of when they replace experience with seeming dollar savings. Reindeau was in tiptop shape for that one.
Amy Gilbert Reams provided a perfect Central Park setting with bridge and litter, benches and stairs. For the most part, Lisa Burgess’ costumes capture the ‘80’s look. Sach’s two pieces suit is a little off. Jason Connor captures the mood with Carnival music in the background to the tunes on Man on the Flying Trapeze and pipe organ sounds off in the distance.
Overall this is one production not to be missed. Scripps Ranch Theatre is located on the campus of the Alliant International University (formerly USIU). Hats off to Artistic Director Jill Drexler another local talent, who has brought this theatre to life. This begins its 31st year. In a quote from Dylan Thomas about the play she writes, “Don’t go gentle into that good night, /Old Age should burn and rave at close of day, / Rage, rage against the dying of the night”.
Gardner’s piece is based on his actually seeing two elderly gents in Central Park sitting on a park bench engaged in conversation. The title is base on an old Vaudevillian joke. As long as his plays are shown, Gardner’s voice for the elderly will always be force to be reckoned with as long as we pay attention.
Whether you’ve seen this play before or not, I highly recommend seeing it. The theatre is comfortable and the drive easy. I’m Not Rappaport continues through Oct. 10th.
For more info go to scrippsranchtheatre.org.
L’Shana Tova from my home to yours. May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life; have a sweet year and see many more good plays.
See you at the theatre.