Near the end of the first act of "Park Your Car in Harvard Yard," there's a deliciously cathartic scene in which the live-in housekeeper for a cantankerous retired schoolteacher finally tells him off to his face -- a safe proposition since his hearing aid has given out.
Israel Horovitz' new bittersweet comedy -- which opened a pre-Broadway run at the Mechanic Theatre last night -- is about two strong-willed New Englanders of opposite temperaments and cultural backgrounds who have more in common, and learn more from each other, than at first seems possible.
Sort of a cross between "Driving Miss Daisy" and "Pygmalion" transported to the blue-collar fishing town of Gloucester, Mass., the story delivers more satisfaction than surprises.
As it stands now -- at 2 hours and 45 minutes -- the tension between the play's two characters is established from the beginning, and various revelations contribute to it. But too often this tension lags, as the playwright -- with a remarkably true ear -- appears to exult in the use of language more than the element of discovery.
The notion that Jacob Brackish, Ph.D., has anything to discover about himself -- or anyone else -- would undoubtedly seem foolhardy to the insensitive know-it-all we meet at the start; he's the type who can't refrain from correcting other people's grammar. "Brackish" describes water that is partly salt and partly fresh, and Jason Robards favors the salty part. He makes it easy to see why generations of students reviled this relentlessly strict music appreciation/English literature teacher. However, for most of the play, the actor's movements and demeanor seem too robust for an ailing octogenarian forced to hire someone to look after him.
The woman he hires turns out to be a former student, which means she's already had a chance to learn something from him -- and by all accounts didn't. However, she has her own reasons for taking this job, and improving her mind isn't one of them. In a richly realized portrayal, Judith Ivey starts out as a mousy, insecure middle-aged widow and grows slowly but credibly in both pride and assertiveness.
Although Brackish's age limits the physical activity on stage, the actors, under Zoe Caldwell direction, keep your attention focused on the inner life of the characters. And externally, the production is enhanced by Ben Edward's book-laden set -- as overstuffed as a Victorian sofa -- as well as Thomas R. Skelton's evocative lighting and John Gromada's sound design, which includes a bevy of classical favorites that play an important role in the story.
One quibble about the music. Is it truly necessary for the pivotal selection to be the over-used Pachelbel Canon in D? Hearing this one more time could do in a music teacher. For mercy's sake -- a little less Pachelbel; that and a little less verbiage could result in a lot more play.
"Park Your Car in Harvard Yard" continues at the Mechanic Theatre through Oct. 27; call 625-1400.