Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
AIRDATE: SEPTEMBER 18, 2009
The title may refer to a comic vaudeville routine, but the theme of “I’m Not Rappaport ” is no joke. Plenty of guffaws always greet the Herb Gardner creation, which won a Tony Award for Best Play in 1985. But the subject – growing older – is no laughing matter. Well, it kind of is to Nat, a fabulist who does everything he can to avoid it, creating new identities for himself by the nanosecond, often with long, detailed histories he makes up on the spot.
Nat is a master of guise and disguise, assuming outrageous personas and employing his consummate conning skill to bail out a friend or to save his own skin. “I was one person for 81 years,” he says. “Why not 100 for the next five?”
But things are getting rougher in New York ’s Central Park . And Nat’s ruses are starting to cause trouble – even physical injury. His exasperated daughter has run out of patience. His park-bench buddy, Midge, is just about done with the scams and shenanigans, too. But Nat fearlessly continues to take on muggers and drug dealers, though he’s terrified of being taken out of the game, confined to a retirement home, or even worse, to his daughter’s house in Siberia, that is to say, the suburbs of Great Neck, Long Island.
The reluctant, evolving relationship between Nat and Midge, the Borscht Belt trickster and the hard-working, unassuming African American, is the beating, poignant heart of the play. Those two colorful, contrary characters are marvelously portrayed by Charlie Riendeau and Antonio TJ Johnson. Riendeau is a stitch, spewing a torrent of words, jokes and false reminiscences, able to think fast on his aging feet and convince anyone of anything. Johnson is his perfect foil. You’d call him a straight man if he weren’t so funny in his own right.
In the outstanding Scripps Ranch Theatre production, under the expert direction of Robert May, we come to love these guys, and we’d love to protect them from all the cynics, aggressors and worrywarts who want to do them in. Those ancillary characters are excellently portrayed by a stellar supporting cast.
The set features a wonderful old stone bridge with trash scattered realistically about, a lamppost, some shrubbery and the bench that forms the centerpiece of the action, where Nat holds forth.
Friendship and companionship, fantasy vs. reality, how to grow old with a little grace – these are issues we all have to face sooner or later – in our parents or ourselves. Gardner cloaks his deeper truths in comic garb. But make no mistake. This play will have you thinking as much as laughing – and you won’t forget these characters any time soon.
You owe it to yourself, your folks and your future to see this warm-hearted, amusing and stirring production – whether you’re Rappaport or not.
The Scripps Ranch Theatre production of “I’m Not Rappaport ” runs through October 10 at the Legler Benbough Theatre on the campus of Alliant University.
©2009 PAT LAUNER