Olney -- At the start of Olney Theatre's production of "I'm No Rappaport," two old men, one black and the other white, sit on a park bench. From their positions, it's clear that they share this bench unwillingly.
The black man is perched at one end with his back to his comfortably situated neighbor; he insists he's through listening to the other man's lies. But by the end of the play, not only are they sharing the bench happily, the black man is actually encouraging the white man's stories.
The placement of the actors in the opening moments is a small detail, but it's a telling one in terms of the sensitivity with which James D. Waring has directed this anthem to the indomitable spirit of the elderly.
Most importantly, he has elicited two well-observed, finely honed performances from lead actors Richard Bauer as Nat, the teller of tall tales, and Michael W. Howell as Midge, his reluctant audience.
Nat and Midge have diametrically opposed ways of coping with life after 80. Cantankerous Nat, an old-line Jewish socialist, believes in shaking things up -- forcing people to take notice. If that means altering the truth occasionally, well, as he puts it, "I was one person for 81 years, why not a hundred for the next five?"
Mr. Bauer has chosen a considerably different approach to Nat than that taken by Judd Hirsch, who originated the role on Broadway. Instead of being overbearing, Mr. Bauer emphasizes Nat's sense of sweetness and fun. When he tries to pass himself off as someone else, Mr. Bauer's Nat does so primarily because he revels in the sheer sport of impersonation. Chutzpah is his shtick.
Soft-spoken Midge, on the other hand, believes in avoiding trouble by laying low and trying to remain invisible. Legally blind, he has hung onto his job as an apartment superintendent by memorizing the building and switching to the night shift, where he is less in demand.
With his eyes in a perpetual squint behind a pair of crooked glasses, Mr. Howell moves cautiously, barely lifting his feet lest he trip over an unseen twig or a crack in the pavement. His is an easy-going, live-and-let-live philosophy -- until Nat steps in and decides to help him improve his situation.
Although the relationship between these two is the core of the play, there are also several secondary characters, most of whom are credibly portrayed. Barbara Andres is especially touching as Nat's devoted but frustrated daughter. However, Timmy Ray James isn't threatening enough in the role of a drug dealer.
"The very old, they are miracles like the just-born; close to the end is precious like close to the beginning," Nat says. If you doubt it, see this production and discover how young at heart the old can be.
"I'm Not Rappaport" continues at Olney Theatre through Aug. 4; call (301) 924-3400.