"I'm Not Rappaport" at the Magic Circle

“The best thing for relaxing is jokes,” one man says to another in Herb Gardner’s I’m Not Rappaport, now showing at the Magic Circle Theatre in a delightful production directed by Elsa Con.  What the jokester doesn’t say is that sometimes behind our laughter a hidden tear gleams, waiting to be acknowledged.  Gardner’s Tony Award-winning classic is one of the most potent and entertaining explorations of this dynamic—the underground brotherhood of humor and sadness—that I have seen in a long time.

The funny man in question, Nat Moyer (Rollie Dick, left, photo above), is a feisty elder still waging now-ancient battles for freedom and justice in a world that seems to have moved on.  Nat is a force of nature with a cane, a passionate and opinionated man raised in the heady atmosphere of early 20th-century labor struggles and socialist idealism.  Now in his eighties, he sees how society is changing but refuses to give up the struggle without a fight.

We meet him on a park bench in Central Park, New York, pestering Midge Carter (Avondina Wills), an aging building superintendent struggling with vision problems.  Midge would rather be left alone with his newspaper, yet he can’t seem to resist being drawn into Nat’s labyrinthine storytelling.

Many of these stories center on Nat’s identity.  First he claims to be a secret government agent; when Midge presses for details, Nat explains that “in my particular field, I don’t have to have a cover story.”

Yet deep cover is exactly what Nat’s self-dramatizing yarns provide, masking the fear of growing old, helpless and powerless.

The arrival of Pete Danforth (Flip Baldwin), a representative of the building where Midge works and lives, provides Nat the opportunity to spring into action.  Danforth has come to inform Midge he’s being let go; a tenant has seen him walking into walls.  Midge has been hiding his growing eyesight troubles as long as he can.  Now he just wants to make it to Christmas, for the holiday tips and bonuses.

Midge manages to convince Danforth to increase the amount of his severance pay, but Nat has no patience for collaboration with the enemy.  Instead, he impersonates a lawyer and frightens Danforth with the threat of litigation, union action, public embarrassment, and, one of Nat’s most cherished words, a strike.

Emboldened by this apparent success, Nat takes on other increasingly dangerous projects: a park hoodlum (Daniel Ruacho), a dope dealer (Brandon Burns) who terrorizes a young woman (Amanda Schemmel), and, most terrifying of all, his own daughter, Clara Gelber (Kalyn Shubnell), who wants to get her father off the streets, out of harm’s way, and into some kind of supervised living.

As Nat, Rollie Dick is simply magnificent.  This is a performance not to be missed.  In Nat, Gardner has created a character who can see what lies ahead, the looming, inescapable precipice of death, and whose response is to throw himself full throttle into the business of life.  Dick takes on this challenging character with incredible gusto.  “The proper response to outrages is still to be outraged!” he cries.  And the diminishment of old age is definitely an outrage to a man so intent that life—his life—should have meaning.

The chemistry between Dick and Wills is superb.  Throughout the play, Midge tries to separate himself from Nat and what he sees as the old man’s craziness.  Midge just wants to be left alone, to find some comfort in the dwindling existence that remains for him.  He has no time for Nat’s grandiosity.  “We’re old men,” he tells Nat.  “We wander like ghosts.”

Yet perhaps they are not so dissimilar; in the end, both men have a fierce desire to be seen.  Wills captures with grace and style the depth of Midge’s character, his accommodation with injustice, his own quiet longing for recognition.

The beautiful set design, by Dani Maupin—with the park’s trees sending forth one final bright flourish of fall color—adds to the note of poignancy that gathers as the play moves towards its satisfying conclusion.

It is easy to be sentimental about old age, but I’m Not Rappaport offers instead a truer portrait of life’s last chapter.  An aging parent, as willful, stubborn and narcissistic as a toddler, can be a problem with no easy solution.  But it can also be an opportunity to appreciate the full spectrum of life, in all its messiness and complications.  “The very old, they are miracles like the just born,” Nat says, almost in self-defense, as if living past a certain age were a crime.  “Close to the end is precious, like close to the beginning.”

I’m Not Rappaport, at the Magic Circle Theatre, 8 El Caminito Rd, Carmel Valley, through September 15.  For tickets and information, call 831-659-7500.