I’m Not Rappaport hasn’t aged as well as its characters

Strong performances and scads of charm rescue Kansas City Actors Theatre’s season opener, I’m Not Rappaport, from a 1984 script that seems ready for retirement.

Like last year’s KCAT season opener, The Gin Game, I’m Not Rappaport follows two prickly seniors as they navigate the indignities and injustices of aging. Nat (Victor Raider-Wexler), once a Communist firebrand, now hides out in Central Park to evade his adult daughter’s patronizing questions. Midge (Granvile O’Neal), an apartment superintendent with failing vision, joins him, hoping to evade a tenant determined to fire him.

Playwright Herb Gardner gives two of Kansas City’s most talented actors ample scenery to chew. Raider-Wexler is electric as Nat, a natural storyteller (read: compulsive liar) who can’t help but meddle in Midge’s affairs. His blistering monologue when posing as Midge’s attorney is an acting master class, as is his rattled fragility when his daughter Clara (Cheryl Weaver) tracks him down. Only when Nat is forced into his least favorite role — Nat Moyer, doddering father — does his age show.

As Midge, O’Neal plays reluctant straight man to Nat’s Vaudeville act. O’Neal’s physical work is especially strong: We see clearly how cataracts and glaucoma affect not only Midge’s movements but also his confidence. His late-play stint in one of Nat’s tall tales earned big laughs opening night thanks to O’Neal’s mouse-timid reading of “Missouri Jack.”

Director Dennis D. Hennessy has assembled a strong supporting cast to join them. Mark Robbins stands out among them as Pete Danforth, the anxious president of the tenants’ board in Midge’s building. Thanks to Robbins, we almost feel sympathetic toward Danforth — until he starts hand-wringing about how hard it is on him to evict an old man from his apartment building. Cheryl Weaver is relaxed and responsive as Clara, Nat’s favorite disappointment. And Brian Huther is sincerely creepy as Gilley, a young Irish bully who preys on the vulnerable.

The production design is a hodgepodge of good work in need of a unified vision. Sound designer Jae Shanks lends the proceedings an eerie, off-kilter edge with distant and occasionally dissonant carousel music (balanced perfectly underneath the actors’ dialogue). Set designer Jason Coale marries nostalgia and brutal realism to jarring effect: A fairytale painted scrim and backdrop abut massive photographic panels of the New York City skyline. Lighting designer Shane Rowse’s color choices are pure nostalgia, though warm lighting behind the scrim makes it translucent in most scenes.

The play’s central conflicts — for Midge, an apartment building modernizing its superintendent out of a job; for Nat, a daughter more worried about keeping her father safe than sane — neatly distill Gardner’s thoughts on aging and obsolescence. But not all of the subplots add up. A cutesy sequence in which Nat and Midge pose as gangsters falls flat, despite strong work from Amy Attaway and Logan Black as a frightened young girl and her threatening drug dealer, respectively.

The constant quips are partly to blame, dispatching violence with whimsy and dating the play. Late in the second act, we learn that the young girl has disappeared — in an offhand remark that’s played like a punch line.

Hennessy’s focus throughout seems to be on the jokes, not the discomfort that drives them. This is perhaps unsurprising, given that the weighty themes Hennessy references in the program’s director’s note are lifted verbatim from the play’s Wikipedia page. But the result lacks the emotional wallop of Gardner’s other comedies (I’m thinking of A Thousand Clowns).

At least the jokes are funny. KCAT’s production is undeniably entertaining, with performances worth the price. The result is a sweet — if not necessarily satisfying — theatrical morsel.

I’m Not Rappaport
Through August 28 at Kansas City Actors Theatre, City Stage at Union Station, 30 West Pershing Road, 816-235-6222, kcactors.org

Categories: Theater