Monday, May 27, 2013

I’m Not Rappaport by Herb Gardner

Carl Crudup and Jack Axelrod

By Joe Straw

I did not have a relationship with the man who gave me life.  My mother divorced him, remarried, and my brothers and sisters assumed the name of the man she married.  My father signed away his rights, and we were, by law, adopted.

When my 91-year-old grandmother died, I asked about my father thinking he was dead.

“No, he’s still alive.” my oldest sister said.

So, after 30 years of not seeing, or speaking to my father, I picked up the phone and called, and after a few moments he told me something that was blatantly false.   Why was the truth so hard for him?  - The narrator.

There’s a lot to be said about the telling of a joke: the timing has to be just right otherwise the joke doesn’t work.  The “I’m not Rappaport” joke was a joke one has to think about.  Still, I didn’t get it. Why doesn’t this joke work? I asked myself.  Personally, I think it needs a pause in the right place.  Reading it over and over, I got the pause. If the pause isn’t in the right place, the joke dies a dispirited death.

The play opens in early October 1982.  The setting is a park bench near a path at the edge of the lake in Central Park, New York City, at 3:00 p.m. on a lovely afternoon.  In the distance is the sound of a carousel spinning accompanied by calliope music – abiding memories of our youth.

Midge (Carl Crudup) is a working class 80-year-old black man with thick glasses trying to read “The Sporting News.” He ignores Nat (Jack Axelrod), a dapper 81-year-old Lithuanian man with a cane and the gift of gab.  To the impartial viewer, they would appear to be complete strangers.

“O.K., where was I? (No response. Midge reads his paper.) Where the hell was I? What were we talking about? I was just about to make a very important point here (to Midge).  What were we talking about?” – Nat

“We wasn’t talking. You was talking. I wasn’t talking.” – Midge

“O.K., so what was I saying?” – Nat

“I wasn’t listening either.  You was doing the whole thing by yourself.” – Midge

“Why weren’t you listening?” – Nat

“Because you’re a Goddamn liar.  I’m not listening to you anymore.” – Midge

The West Coast Jewish Theatre presents “I’m Not Rappaport” by Herb Gardner and directed by Howard Teichman. This is a marvelously well-written show, wonderfully directed and with a superior cast.

It’s probably best to come in cold on a production like this, let the events unfold before your eyes and ears and make the best of what you believe is true or not true.  Because “I’m Not Rappaport” is a play about a man who never tells the truth.

Well, never is never really correct.  Maybe the better option is telling you he rarely tells the truth but is having the time of his life making up stuff as he goes along.

Sometimes in the park you find your perfect spot, the shading is just right, the breeze a cool wisp, and the sun catches you in spots that warm your soul.  But sharing the spot and fighting off unwanted interruptions requires a tenacious constitution.  This is a story about two men wanting to get the most out of the rest of their lives and needing each other in order to make that happen.

Midge has found that spot.  He’s been there for the last couple weeks listening to Nat tells his stories that are blatantly not true.  That is an understatement; the stories were out and out lies, but good stories that passed the time.

Midge has had enough and is going to punch Nat out, if he can see him. While taking a swing, Midge falls to the ground. He remains quiescent, and methodically takes inventory of his intactness.

Nat runs his hands along Midge’s body to make sure all the bones are in one piece in an act of unembarrassed friendliness.

“If you like this, we’re engaged.” – Nat

But Midge has another reason for keeping a low profile.  He hopes to avoid Danforth (Joe Langer), who heads the building committee where he works and lives.  There will be upgrades to the building and there are a lot of changes taking place. Today Midge thinks he’s getting the axe.

And, sure enough, Danforth (Joe Langer) sees him from the bridge and shouts that he’s got three more miles to go before he can get to Midge and their meeting.  Midge is a nervous wreck.

“Mr. Danforth, Twelve H, Head o’ the Tenants’ Committee.  Place is goin’ co-op, he says they got some reorganizin’ to do, says he wants to see me private…” – Midge

Midge has been hiding from him and, as it turns out, the truth will be coming three miles later.  Midge has bad eyesight, so bad he sees blue shadows and very little else.

Nat says he’s the same way and, in that way, they are connected.

“Why because we both got vision.  Who needs sight when you got vision.” - Nat

And even though Nat says Midge has got a cowardly personality and a chicken-sh*t attitude he is convinced their meeting with Danforth will go well.

Jack Axelrod is wonderful as Nat.  It is a marvelous performance that should not be missed by people who love the theatre and those who study, take notes, and marvel at the craft. This is definitely a character that wants to live and live with all the gusto he can muster until he drops.  He is a man of the proletariat with a scornful disregard for the bourgeois.  There is only one thing that frightens him and that is losing his freedom, you can see it in his eyes as he quails inwardly. Alexrod is stout but is not a spring chicken and I’m not sure how many times he can be thrown to the ground during the course of this run.  Natheless, there is so much life, heart, and soul in his performance one does not want to leave the theatre.

Carl Crudup is equally exciting as Midge.  His performance as a mordacious character is as riveting as it as it is exciting. As independent as he feels, he needs his counterpart to help him through the rough spots. He can’t do it alone and how many other people his age can he relate to? Not many I suspect.  And although he has lost most of his sight, he has this innate implacable curiosity about him and will not rest until he finds the true identity of his counterpart. It is a wonderful performance.

Joe Langer plays Danforth with aplomb.  Langer brings a lot of life to Danforth.  It is a nasty but sympathetic portrayal of a man having to do the dirty deed and not feeling really good about it. Or is that just an act? Why would he be there if he didn’t accept the job?  He is just a college professor, someone who teaches Communication Arts and may be the best person suited for the task. Langer is wonderful when confronted by Nat and that whole back and forth lifts the play to unimaginable heights. It is a wonderful job.

Melissa Collins plays Laurie and does an admirable job.   Laurie is an art student who is out in the park sketching, working on the details of her craft, the lake, trees, two old men and possibly a drug dealer.   Yes, she has had a problem and she’s trying to move on with her life.  Her only problem is the drug dealer wants $2,000.00 she owes for buying drugs on credit that doesn’t sit well when the dealer politely demands the money. This is a peculiar role.  Laurie has a rough edge, but when she enters, it is as though she is just an art student.  If there is someone looking for her, her actions in this mostly deserted part of the park do not indicate a dark force approaching.  She even decides to take a nap.   Maybe there are others choices to be had here.

Andy Scott Harris plays Gilley and does well but lacks the well-defined character needed for this particular role. It may be easy putting on the costume and saying the tuff guy words but there are many more layers needed for this character.  The kiss doesn’t work because there is no relationship between the two of them and because she wakes up and finds that he is not the man she expects.  His sole purpose is to get his walking-home money, his protection fee, and there should be nothing that takes him away from that objective.  He needs to find better ways to get those men home until he gets to his last resort, the knife. Harris is 15 years old, has a good look, and has a lot more to learn.  One can’t help but wonder, with the talent around him, that he has learned a lot during the run of this show.  

Maria Spassoff and Jack Axelrod

Maria Spassoff plays Clara Gelbert and provides a performance I truly loved. Spassoff is a focused actress that goes after what she wants.  As the character Clara, a real estate agent now living in Great Neck, her objective is to find her father and get him to agree to a living arrangements that will put her mind at rest and not drive her absolutely mad. She, once a militant herself, will no longer cover for her dad’s fraud, which seems to be a daily occurrence. She does believe in her “Pop” and is even caught and carried away in his reality. It is a wonderful performance.

Carl Crudup and Patrick J. Rafferty 

Patrick J. Rafferty as The Cowboy has a wonderful stage presence, a delightful Montana accent, and a character with many layers. Trying to be the tough guy, he has much insecurity and is not afraid to show it.  As The Cowboy he is smart and tenacious but maybe not as smart as those around him, possibly he is in way over his head, and is coming to terms this may not be the life for him.  His only problem is getting out.  

Kate Huffman is an understudy for Laurie but did not perform the night I was there.

Howard Teichman, the Director and Producer have done a wonderful job. Just a note:  I would clean up the relationship of the first scene.  For the first few minutes one is not sure if the two have had a relationship at all. We discover it through the eventual dialogue but I’m wondering if there is a better choice. Still, Teichman takes his actors on a whirlwind journey despite Nat’s pathetically mendacious ways.  The story ends with a gracious resolution and the audience soars out of the theatre. Teichman has done a fantastic job, simply marvelous.

Herb Gardner has written a terrific play. He gives us a lot to think about as we move closer to the miserable indignities of old age, those depressing thoughts of aging as, each day, we move one day closer to death.  But there is a lot of life in this play and watching it all play out is a fantastic journey.  The characters, all of them, are untrammelled, each having their own voice and speaking loud enough to say “We are not going quietly!”

Bill Froggatt is the Associate Producer and Sound Designer and did a fantastic job.

Priscilla Miranda is the Stage Manager.

Michéle Young is the Costume Designer and did a very nice job finding or producing the 1980’s costumes for that period. 

Ellen Monocroussos is the Lighting Designer.

Kurtis Bedford is the wonderful Set Designer and did a fantastic job.

Michael Lamont is the Photographer.

Kiff Scholl is the Graphic Designer.

Philip Sokoloff is the Publicist.

Run and take an octogenarian.  Maybe you’ll discover that you have more in common about life and the theatre than you thought. 

Pico Playhouse
10508 W. Pico Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA  90064
Reservation: 323-860-6620


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