Two old men on a park bench, one white and one black, sit swapping stories. No premise could be simpler, no setting more static. But because the theater is ultimately a medium of language, of narrative, a skilled playwright can find in just such a conversation all the action an audience needs. The result can be poignant and elegiac, like David Storey's Home, or salty and burlesque, like David Mamet's Duck Variations, or full of rage and silences, like many of Beckett's dramas.
Herb Gardner, author of the 1962 A Thousand Clowns, is the laureate of losers who wage hopeless battles while cracking jokes. He celebrates fighting the system as the way to keep the soul alive. So when he puts two old men on a bench in I'm Not Rappaport, it is not surprising that they are engaging codgers, inspired liars, tattered but gallant knights-errant. They take on the muggers, the drug dealers, the authorities who impose mandatory retirement, all without moving more than a few feet from the bench. Their skirmishes are uproarious. What gives the play a sad undertone of truth is the inescapable fact that they do not and cannot win.
The octogenarian rapscallions are evoked in two of the most remarkable performances of the year. Cleavon Little and Judd Hirsch totter convincingly as men whose eyes are blear with glaucoma and cataracts and whose hips are fragile, "like a teacup." Yet they do not milk their infirmities for sympathy. They emphasize instead the odd-couple differences in their personalities and ways of life. As they egg each other on to battle, they also come to know and trust each other. Hence Rappaport is less a problem drama than a kind of love story. Little depicts a man who has survived by staying out of harm's way. Knowing that he is in danger of being pensioned off from his job as an apartment-house superintendent, he switches to the night shift and ducks from the tenant committee. Hirsch portrays an incendiary old socialist, a meddlesome lover of confrontation politics and a compulsive impersonator of whoever might solve his problems, from a union lawyer to a Mafia don to "Dr. Friedrich Engles," a purported psychoanalyst. He too is hiding, from a daughter who wants to supervise his risky behavior. When at last she catches up with him, he deftly summarizes her alternative plans to take him in, place him in a nursing home or consign him to day care at a senior citizens' center: "O.K., we got three possibilities. We got exile in Great Neck. We got Devil's Island. And we got kindergarten. All rejected."
The history of this production typifies the common-sense paths that producers are testing to escape the boom-or-bust cycle on Broadway, where high operating costs all but demand that shows have ecstatic reviews or a huge advance sale to survive. Rappaport started as a production of the Seattle Repertory Theater. Next, that company's artistic director, Daniel Sullivan, staged it off-Broadway in June. Word of mouth built, and so did sales. Late last month Rappaport transferred to Broadway, where it takes its place as the funniest and most touching play yet this season. --By William A. Henry III