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“You gotta shake things up, make things happen!” says the old socialist Nat in I’m Not Rappaport. But Nat’s over 80, and never mind shaking anything: The guy’s got trouble just standing up. He’s hasn’t lost the gift of gab, though. I’m Not Rappaport reminds us that lefties used to be the life of the party, that they got us marching by charming our socks off. Judd Hirsch’s Nat flips Karl Marx on his head: His history happens first as farce, with tragedy only an afterthought.
Both Rappaport and Hirsch won Tonys when the play premiered back in the prehistoric mists of 1986. In this revival at Ford’s Theatre, Hirsch is back in his old role, Daniel Sullivan is directing again, and even the lighting and Central Park set are identical. No surprise, then, that this production feels grooved. Rappaport has aged into a star vehicle for Hirsch and Ben Vereen, and that’s not all bad: The two inhabit their characters with virtuoso detailing. It’s the kind of acting that sends audiences away thinking they’ve seen the pinnacle of the profession.
Vereen’s Midge, the elderly night superintendent for a Manhattan apartment building, spends his days on a park bench reading the newspaper. Nat recently claimed the bench’s other side and has been rambling on about his undercover life as a Cuban boat person. Whatever Nat really is, he’s a beautiful liar. Within 10 minutes, we hear that: (a) his name is Harry (or is it Stan?) Schwartzman; (b) he’s a triple-bypass heart patient who begs for day-old club rolls from the Plaza Hotel; and (c) he’s impersonating his own psychiatrist (“Dr. Fred Engels”) so that his daughter won’t put him in a nursing home. “You’re playin’ three-card monte with my head!” complains Midge.
So what’s Nat’s true game? He’s just a nosy noodle, a fiery New York Jew who reads the Daily Worker and tries to incite riots over high deli prices. When he finds out that Midge has glaucoma, he offers him some of his own prescription pot. (“Direct from the White House,” he says.) And when a yuppie tenant from Midge’s building comes by to fire him, Nat becomes a crusading lawyer who scares the guy off with visions of mass protests and a radical attack squad. Nat thinks he’s invincible, though, and that becomes a problem when he takes on the park’s young riffraff armed only with class solidarity and a cane.
On one level, Rappaport comes across as Grumpy Old (Smart) Men, and that’s the level Hirsch and Vereen stay on. Vereen’s Midge is an old boxer who’s scared of the shadows he can still see. His limbs tremble independent of his will, but he’s still got a little spunk left, not to mention a whooping laugh like a tropical-bird call. A great straight man, Vereen makes his funniest move by not moving an inch, hoping a scary drug dealer won’t spot him as Nat spins out an elaborate flimflam.
But Hirsch owns the show. Nat is old-school New York—sarcastic, stoic, cajoling—and Hirsch nails him. His line delivery crackles. His cons come forth as fully formed paragraphs. And Hirsch’s faceful of beard looks like something Maurice Sendak would draw. He’s just enough of a cartoon to remind you that, in Nat, he’s playing a perpetual actor.
Therein lies the first problem: You’re never unaware that you’re watching two great actors. Hirsch and Vereen have choreographed their conversations, but they don’t seem to be listening to one another. They turn toward each other occasionally, but they’re always playing to the crowd; only Jeb Brown as the stylishly vicious drug dealer interacts with the rest of the cast. The unfortunate choice at Ford’s to mike the actors just amplifies their staginess.
And this aim-to-please attitude damages the guts of the play itself. Hirsch and director Sullivan rush things along to the laugh lines and right over a lot of the script’s subtleties. They seem to see Rappaport as a gentle comedy about the inevitability of getting old. But it’s also about a pathological fibber who’s ashamed at having led an ordinary life. Nat represents the pathos of American radicals, the way this country marginalized them and wasted their energy and talents. And he’s also Exhibit A for the egotism plaguing progressive movements. But while Nat’s lefty diatribes get the yuks, Hirsch slides over the character’s complications.
Nat’s second-act conversation with his daughter, Clara (Mimi Lieber), is the most striking example of this neglect. Nat raised Clara in his image, and his disappointment runs deep that she’s grown up to become a real estate agent—in his words, that’s she’s traded “Marx and Engels for Bergdorf and Goodman.” She, in turn, is scarred by his refusal to let her have a real childhood. Worried that his theatrics will get him killed, Clara gives Nat an ultimatum: Stop coming to the park or I’ll become your legal guardian.
It could be a great scene, but Hirsch’s Nat doesn’t show any bitterness at his fate or regret at his rigidity. Not even his line “I cherish my enemies—they tell me what to believe” has teeth. Instead of fighting for his independence, he sounds as if he were flipping through a family album. And Lieber merely walks through the role of Clara. She can finish her father’s sentences, but she hardly seems related to him: There’s none of the old man’s fire in her.
Well, maybe it’s bad form to complain too much when legends come to town and put on a pretty damn funny play. As Nat tells Midge, though, nostalgia is “the dread disease of old people.” This production of Rappaport turns socialism into a nostalgia act. Socialism, like the play itself, is more.
It’s threatening to become feet-of-clay season in area theaters. The institution of marriage is already taking a beating in the Washington Stage Guild’s production of Shaw’s Getting Married, and now Classika Theatre has mounted Nikolai Gogol’s The Marriage, perhaps the definitive comedic look at pre-wedding jitters. The play might amuse the happily hitched, but the rest of us should handle it like nitroglycerin.
This Marriage begins in total darkness, broken by two children carrying candles. They lead a wedding procession, it turns out, a solemn and beautiful ritual that’s missing only…the groom. But he’s found soon enough, albeit in dressing gown and slippers, and pushed forward toward a priest (who can’t decide which ring goes with whom) and a bride (whom he’s never met but is soon kissing). It’s a dream, of course, and the disheveled dreamer, Ivan Podkolyosin (Paul McLane), can’t decide if it’s fantasy or nightmare. The matchmaker he’s been putting off for three months is coming today with news of a hot prospect, and Ivan’s sweating bullets.
Ivan is a Russian court counselor—a middle manager, basically—with a bachelor’s stereotypical fear of commitment. He’d like to dip his toe into the matrimonial pool, but he immediately gets thrown into the deep end by the matchmaker Fyokla Ivanovna (Hanna Bondarewska) and his own best friend, Kochkaryov (Jason Basinger Linkins). Kochkaryov buzzes around Ivan like some reverse Iago, urging him to take the plunge while getting him dressed and out the door. By the time the poor guy’s been hustled to the house of doe-eyed beauty Agafya Tikhonovna (Caroline Kenney), his life can no longer be called his own.
Director Yuri Kordonsky likes his productions physical, and nearly the entire cast literally slams off the walls with anxiety. But McLane underplays Ivan gorgeously. He’s got a little Jason Alexander in him, lust and hope and cowardice and befuddlement all scrimmaging across his face. Bondarewska gives matchmaker Fyokla an earthy gusto, biting off great hunks of sausage as she describes the aristocrats she’s lined up ahead of Ivan for Agafya. Linkins makes Kochkaryov’s eyes sparkle with mad mischief—he’s a deranged frat brother setting up his buddy. And Stephen Shetler is hilarious as Ivan’s insolent, fruit-obsessed manservant Stepan. (Shetler and McLane switch roles on alternate nights.)
Unfortunately for Ivan, three of Fyokla’s other finds have beaten him to Agafya. And unfortunately for the audience, their written scenes drag. Caricatures that show their age, these suitors—Omelet (Dwayne Starlin), Anuchkin (Tel Monks), and Zhevakin (Lou Swerda)—are also here conceived as nothing but unfunny and quickly irritating mannerisms. Starlin, who’s substantially smaller than the well-named Omelet should be, compensates by shouting loud enough all evening to melt earwax. Kordonsky gives his actors much slack, but he should have pulled in the reins here.
Eventually, though, Kochkaryov manipulates Agafya into choosing Ivan, and Ivan thinks he sees the light as well. (Speaking of light, light designer Cherie Siebert performs absolute magic, changing moods on a dime against the basically black set of Misha Kachman.) But five minutes after the wedding-banquet table has cleverly descended from the ceiling, Ivan’s crawling away through a window. Classika’s The Marriage is really an exhaustive (and exhausting) look at the single person’s circular psychology. CP