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The late Herb Gardner (he died in 2003) hand-wrote his plays on a Central Park bench. One day, the author of A Thousand Clowns watched two old men nearby, one black, one white. They would sit quietly or chuckle to themselves. Then, for no apparent reason, they’d flash into an argument so heated they’d almost come to blows. Most people wouldn’t notice them, Gardner said to himself: just cantankerous coots venting ancient bile. In fact, most people would wish they’d vanish. Gardner did the opposite: he wrote I’m Not Rappaport and put them on Broadway.

Eighty-one-year-old Nat and 80-year-old Midge know that, to the world around them, they’re just “ghosts” — on the margin of the master-shot, at best. And that’s fine with Midge, an African-American superintendent at a nearby apartment complex. Even at his job he prefers to remain unseen, down in the boiler room, so he won’t ruffle feathers, nor they him.

Nat Moyer’s the opposite, and it’s more than just an infantile craving for attention. In an interview, Gardner said he recalled “extraordinary…men and women, all immigrants, passionate people, who believed a great, humane kind of America existed — and when it didn’t, they decided to make up the difference.” Nat tells stories and reinvents himself with each. Was he Hernando, the escaped Cuban terrorist? Or an attorney for the human rights organization HURTSFOE? Nat admits he makes “alterations when the truth doesn’t fit” (Midge says he isn’t “even friendly with the truth”). But Nat has such a gift for tale-spinning that when he confesses he’s been “just a waiter” for 41 years, you even take that revelation with a grain of salt.

Picture Murray Burns as an 81-year-old social activist, waging war against, among other injustices, the “real villain,” time. Place him with Midge, the grounded realist, and the two men with gray goatees become an octogenarian version — circa 1982 — of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

Only the windmills are thugs “who beat up old folks for exercise” and drug addicts and an apartment complex going co-op next month. And, unlike Quixote, who enjoys a privileged status for a while at least, society regards Nat and Midge as outcasts, in part because to a culture obsessed with youth, they represent unsightly previews of coming attractions. Nat’s convinced that if it could, society would either entomb the aged in a “home for the forgotten” or eliminate them altogether: commit “abortion at the other end.”

Rappaport loses credibility when the pair play mobsters to fool a young hoodlum. The scene lacks Quixote’s aura. Nat and Midge just look deluded. But otherwise the play blends an unpopular theme, discrimination against the elderly, with what you could call “sit-down” comedy routines, since Nat and Midge remain on the bench, for the most part, and are very funny.

The key to Rappaport, and the Scripps Ranch production, is the two-sided interplay between Nat and Midge. They aren’t lifelong pals. They’ve known each other maybe five days. When the play begins, Midge has pretty much had it with his garrulous bench-mate and is contemplating a change of venue. Charlie Riendeau and Antonio “TJ” Johnson make Nat and Midge as much adversaries as potential friends. As with old age, the end of their contact could come unexpectedly. If Nat makes too outrageous a claim, Midge could leave, and the show’d be over.

Nat the activist tinges his sentences with socialist slogans. And when Riendeau takes off his beret, from the side he looks a lot like V.I. Lenin. Riendeau sustains Nat’s intensities admirably (even through the long, and talky, first act). Also to his credit, when Nat tells his stories, Riendeau gives them an improvisational feel.

A Craig Noel Award–winner, Johnson deftly unpeels Midge’s barriers. He’s a reluctant Sancho Panza drawn to and repulsed by Nat’s flights of fancy. Johnson gives Midge practical wisdom. It’s as if he has already read Rappaport and knows he should change benches. But, after all, Nat’s stories do entertain and keep both men’s spirits young.

The men live on Social Security checks “that wouldn’t pay the rent for a chipmunk.” But their outfits are too fresh off the rack for someone on a fixed income (especially the mobsters’ designer shades). The costumes of the supporting cast could use distressing as well.

You’d swear the Scripps Ranch design team absconded with an actual Central Park footbridge and plunked it center-stage. The weathered, arched masonry’s a dead ringer for the original. And the lighting in Act 1 underscores the play’s theme: a slow, almost imperceptible sunset.

I’m Not Rappaport, by Herb Gardner
Scripps Ranch Theatre, Legler Benbough Theatre, Alliant International University
Directed by Robert May; cast: Charlie Riendeau, Antonio “TJ” Johnson, Max Macke, Catherine Dupont, Dylan Chouinard, Julie Anderson Sachs, Reed Willard; scenic design, Amy Gilbert Reams; costumes, Lisa Burgess; lighting, Mitchell Simkovsky; sound, Jason Connors
Playing through October 10; Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 858-578-7728.

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