by Michael Bowen

On a bench in Central Park sit two old men, both in their 80s. Midge can barely see -- he has cataracts -- and just wants to be left alone. He imagines himself as the Golden Glove boxer he was back in his youth, but the reality is that he's a feeble geezer who's about to be forced out of his job as an apartment super. Nat -- also lonely, also bedeviled by his share of physical ailments, also with plenty of time to fill -- just wants to divert Midge's attention away from the newspaper and onto all the stories that Nat wants to tell. Some are reminiscences; most are intriguing; nearly all are fabricated. Faced with the insignificance, and invisibility of old age, Nat chooses to spin his own yarns and inhabit other, less disappointing lives.

Challenged by Midge, who's irritated by this teller of tall tales, Nat replies, exasperated, "I was one person for 81 years, why not a hundred for the next five?!" It's a reasonable question -- one that should get those of us in the auditorium thinking. It's why we're sitting there, after all: Nat escaping his life of disappointment, amusing himself by insinuating himself into the lives of other people for a couple of hours -- well, isn't that what going to the theater on Friday night is all about? In the vaudeville routine of life -- the harmless patter we all go through to take our minds off yard work and dentist appointments -- Midge is the straight man. And Nat? Nat's the guy with all the gags.

In I'm Not Rappaport (through April 23 on the Civic's Main Stage), one old codger needs another to help him dodge the truth. While it may be a conspiracy of geezers, however, the reason to see this buddies-on-a-park-bench play is Ed Cornachio. As Nat, the ex-Commie rabble-rouser, Cornachio fights for the people at every opportunity (most of them of Nat's invention). He's an elderly Walter Mitty with diminishing life options but an ever-expanding imagination. And the people he's fighting for are out in the audience -- because every one of us would like our lives to go better, every one of us would like the constant stream of disappointments to dry up.

The title of Herb Gardner's play derives from an obsession of Nat's, a vaudeville routine that centers on what the teller'isn't -- he's not this, he's not that. Similarly, Nat wasn't in the CIA, wasn't a leader of the proletariat -- he wasn't a lot of things. But in his burgeoning mind, he could be -- and that's what helps him put one foot in front of the other, every day. The same goes, Gardner suggests, for the rest of us.

As Midge, Bryan Jackson -- unlike Cornachio, a couple of generations too young for his part -- enacts a convincing graybeard, and he has the irascibility, the clipped insults down. But on opening night, too often Jackson was rummaging around in his mind for Midge's next line, interrupting the flow of exasperation that often pours out of this nearly blind and always wary old man. He's about to lose his job and desperate; when Midge's tirades erupt, Jackson needs to let his outbursts flow. The repetition of performance should smooth out the problem.

While Rappaport is very much the Nat and Midge Show, there are subplots involving the usual array of New Yorkers -- thugs, junkies and heartless co-op tenants. Jordan Peterson, for example, is supposed to represent a tough guy who prowls the park and extorts "protection money" from the two old men -- but in both his body language (tentative) and his voice (weak), Peterson isn't at all convincing in the small role. You can't back away and avert your eyes from somebody you're trying to intimidate.

As a drug dealer, Jhon Goodwin provides hulking menace. The best of the supporting cast is Jacqueline Davis as Nat's 40-year-old daughter, a Long Island super Mom. In a brief scene, she manages to convey Clara's anger and concern simultaneously. Davis rages at Nat for fighting lost battles, for being unwilling to make changes -- and in the next moment, she's got her head on Dad's shoulder as they share an old joke. With autumnal leaves strewn about their feet -- Peter Hardie's set plants us in Central Park beneath an arched masonry bridge -- it's a touching moment, made real by the daughter-father argument that preceded it. Nik Adams' sepia-toned New York skyline sketches in nostalgia as a backdrop.

Nat's nostalgia is escapist: He reminisces not to reach the past but to evade the present. Some use drugs and alcohol; Nat, he likes to tell stories. He tells them with a straight face, even when they're utterly untrue, and draws us in. Cornachio is never more powerful than when, toddling behind a walker in the scene with his daughter, he deploys it as a defense against her accusations, as if pleading in a courtroom at the bar.

While director Rick Hornor hasn't demanded enough of Jackson and Peterson, he wisely chose to let Cornachio create simple, understated moments. And watching Ed Cornachio impersonate doctors, lawyers, spies and lovers is invigorating -- a glimmer of everything else we could be doing with our lives.

Sitting in the audience, paying our money in exchange for two hours' distraction from injustice and boredom, we're just asking for a little escape the same way Nat does. (He's older than the rest of us but way more entertaining.) As Nat warns one of Midge's condescending tenants (Dennis Ashley), one day we'll all be old. Someday we'll all be sitting on a park bench, with passersby not even offering so much as a sideways glance. Then we'll be invisible, like ghosts -- defiant ones, like Nat? -- with nothing but our stories to tell.

Publication date: 04/14/05

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About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.