Ben Vereen just dazzles as old man

Review: Judd Hirsch takes another spin around `Rappaport.

January 26, 2002|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

It isn't just the old-age makeup, Coke-bottle eyeglasses or gray hair and full beard that make Ben Vereen's transformation in I'm Not Rappaport so remarkable. It's the tentative way he moves, the tremor in his hand, the squint in his eye, the sandpaper in his voice.

Granted, Vereen's co-star, Judd Hirsch, re-creating his 1986 Tony Award-winning role, is the actor most closely associated with Herb Gardner's play, currently at Ford's Theatre in Washington. But Vereen's performance is a revelation.

In this enjoyable but uneven revival, Vereen plays Midge, the legally blind, geriatric custodian who shares a bench in Central Park with Hirsch's Nat, an 81-year-old Jewish socialist. I'm Not Rappaport - the title comes from a vaudeville routine that's a favorite of Nat's - is a Tony Award-winning play about friendship and the dignity of the elderly. But it's also about never giving up the good fight.

Vereen's character is an ex-Golden Gloves fighter, and though Midge has matured into a man whose method of coping with old age is to try to stay out of sight, you can't take your eyes off him.

Having seen Vereen in his usual guise on PBS' broadcast of Fosse the night before the Rappaport opening, I barely recognized the actor at Ford's. Not merely content to show us an older version of himself, Vereen has disappeared entirely into the character of Midge.

The result is a performance that is the dramatic equivalent of Vereen's best work on the musical stage, and it's the best reason to see this revival.

Even with fewer lines and less dramatic action, Vereen's performance outshines his co-star's. Nat - a master of shtick, teller of tales and self-proclaimed man of many identities - fits Hirsch like an old shoe, and that may be part of the problem. This shoe's a little too worn and comfortable. Some of the spring has gone out of its step.

Nearly two decades after the show's debut, Hirsch is much closer to Nat's age, yet the actor seems less fully engaged with his cantankerous character than he was when Rappaport was new. This is true whether Nat is up to his hoodwinking shenanigans or regaling his grown daughter with the story of her revolutionary namesake.

Part of the difficulty with this scene is that Mimi Lieber's portrayal of the daughter is more studied than affecting. Indeed, most of the supporting cast is weak. For instance, neither Steven Boyer nor Jeb Brown seem especially threatening in the roles of dangerous denizens of Central Park. The one exception is Anthony Arkin's on-target depiction of an out-of-shape yuppie professor trying to shove Midge out of the custodian's job he's held for more than 40 years.

There's talk of a Broadway transfer for this revival, which has been staged by the play's original director, Daniel Sullivan. Before that can happen, however, the entire production needs to be infused with Vereen's irresistible spark.

I'm Not Rappaport

Where: Ford's Theatre, 511 Tenth St., N.W., Washington

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; matinees at 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through Feb. 17

Tickets: $27-$43

Call: 202-347-4833

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