If you've had your ear to the theater floorboards over the past few months, you've heard the rumbling from "I'm Not Rappaport": Tony Awards in New York, a touted West Coast tour with Judd Hirsch knocking out the crowds.
Salt Lakers have been antsy to get it.Word of mouth publicity can both help and harm a regional production, of course. The praise can get so lofty that theatergoers are disappointed in anything short of Olivier in Hamlet.
My verdict on the show? The local crew hangs performances on the wall that will satisfy the hungriest patron.
But the play itself spikes high and low. I came away wiser, well-entertained, but somehow empty. My sense is playwright Herb Gardner takes a healthy, home-run cut here but manages only a solid single.
To begin with, "I'm Not Rappaport" is about two park-bench duffs: Nat (played by Jack Axelrod, who many may recognize from "General Hospital") and Midge (Herb Lovelle, fresh from his recent role in the movie "Running on Empty."
In shows like this - basically two-man vehicles - playwrights usually try to set two forces of human nature against each other. In Mamet's "Life In the Theater" it's past and promise, for instance. "Rappaport" gives us overtones of Quijote and Sancho: illusion set against cold reality.
Nat's the dreamer here. A natural storyteller and performer, he concocts plots and personal histories for his life faster than the people around him can register the things. His down-to-earth friend, Midge - an ex-pug with working class smarts - lets himself get taken in by the guy at first, then even allows Nat to cast him in a goofy role or two.
The laughs are not few, and seldom far between.
Other characters circulate, though most have time to represent only states of mind. Nat's daughter Clara (Nicola Sheara) is the essence of sensibility and compromise. Landlord Danforth (Max Robinson) embodies the values of modern America and The Cowboy (John Conley) and drug addict Laurie (Michelle O'Neill) play out a victim and victimizer tango. Gilley the mugger (Sam Stewart) hovers in the background like the evil shadows.
Yet in the end the play must rise or fall on the shoulders of Nat. And there's the rub. From my seat, it seemed playwright Gardner basically sends the old man into a social coma at the end. Gardner creates a stark, funny, riveting piece of pathos here, a human drama that cries for a grand gesture, some form of redemption, retribution or supreme sacrifice. Instead, Gardner opts for compromise and allows our two heroes to ride off into the sunset like quaint old chums in a silly old world. I flashed on the final chapters of "Huckleberry Finn" where Huck and Jim saunter off as if life were just a series of pranks - an ending that has disappointed readers for generations.
Here, where we could have had a work that questions our morality, our lack of self-knowledge and our fear of the elderly, we get, in the end, a warm little statement about friendship. Where the audience might have left with hope, fear or even resolution, they leave saying "how cute," "how entertaining."
Still, as I've said, hand out the kudos for this production. Tom Markus is a fine director, and Peter Harrison - in PTC tradition - shows off a knock-out set. Peter L. Willardson handles the lights so well that approaching night almost becomes another character. Linda Sarver's costumes are perfect.