Playwright Herb Gardner is known for his cheerful, nonconformist characters, such as Murray in his celebrated work, "A Thousand Clowns."

In the same vein are Nat and Midge, two crusty, cantankerous, social misfits who are the focal point of "I'm Not Rappaport," the Tony Award-winning play that opens Wednesday on the Lees Main Stage of Pioneer Memorial Theatre and continues, Mondays-Saturdays, through Jan. 21.Tom Markus, newly named University of Utah theatre department chairman, is directing the Pioneer Theatre Company production, with Jack Axelrod of Los Angeles and Herb Lovelle of New York City as the two octogenarians.

Also in the cast are John Conley and Nicola Sheara, both of New York, along with Max Robinson, Michelle O'Neill and Sam Stewart of Salt Lake City.

"You collect old furniture, old cars, old pictures, everything but old people. Bad souvenirs, they talk too much. . . . The problem's not that life is short, but that it's very long; so you better have a policy. Here we are. Look at us. We're the coming attractions," says one of the Central Park bench-warmers during the play, which ran for three years on Broadway and won Tony Awards not only for the author, but for actors Judd Hirsch and Cleavon Little.

The two old gents burn bright with fiery intelligence and wit, even when they're under siege from a society where the question of abnormality becomes blurred.

With flair and bravado, the old men fend off street thugs, drug dealers and the inevitability of old age with comic rage and piercing realism. Even more the play grieves for our inhumanity to the older adult, but it avoids sentimentality and reveals a respect and dignity for the elderly.

More than 200 free tickets have been donated to area senior citizen centers for the preview night of "I'm Not Rappaport" (Tuesday night). Marlene Allen of the Salt Lake County department of aging services has worked with PTC to ensure that nearly 10 centers around the valley received complimentary tickets and that adequate transportation is being provided.

Markus is making his PTC directorial debut with "I'm Not Rappaport," but he's no stranger to Utah. He has been involved in five seasons of the Utah Shakespearean Festival in Cedar City. (In 14 seasons with various festivals across the country he's acted in, directed or supervised more than 50 productions of Shakespeare's plays.)

"When I saw the show (`Rappaport') in New York, I saw an audience of all ages and from all backgrounds laughing at Herb Gardner's brilliant script and being deeply touched by its compassion for the triumphant older folks that it celebrates," Markus says.

Others involved with the production are Peter L. Willardson, lighting; Linda Sarver, costumes; Peter Harrison, sets, and John Caywood, stage manager.

"I'm Not Rappaport" will play at 8 p.m. nightly, except Sundays, with matinees at 2 p.m. on Jan. 14 and 21. The Pioneer Memorial Theatre is located on the University of Utah campus at Third South and University streets. For further information or reservations, call the PTC box office at 581-6961.