When Clarence Gilyard and Richard Bugg take on the roles of 81-year-old men Midge and Nat in the Neil Simon Festival’s production of “I’m not Rapapport” it becomes an opportunity that should not be missed.
As you watch Nat (Bugg) and Midge (Gilyard) battle the issues of aging, income, health and family, it is hysterical, touching and realistic. They transform into two elderly men with personality and wit in spades. Poor Midge just wants to sit on his bench as he avoids trouble but Nat can’t help himself. He wants Midge to be his friend or his audience or both as he regales him with completely made up stories about him being a deep undercover FBI agent, and a myriad of other unbelievable characters. Midge begs him to leave him alone repeatedly but Nat is determined to drag Midge into his world where he refuses to stop enjoying life. Even if that means he gets them into fights with thugs and schemes with drug dealers.
Nat thinks he is invincible and sometimes, just for a moment, he truly is. “Don’t you understand? The old people – they are the survivors. They know something,” Nat says to Danforth (Henry Ballesteros) the chairman of the board of the housing units where Midge is trying to keep his job as a supervisor. And although he is pretending to be the lawyer of a prestigious law firm at the time, he speaks the truth;“The old people – they are the survivors.”
Bugg is absolutely convincing as a Lithuanian philosopher/communist/activist who is fighting aging with every ounce of wily energy he still has. It is impossible not to be charmed and annoyed by his character at the same time. And Gilyard is genius as Midge the realistic, practical side of the pair. They complement each other well on stage, especially in those moments where they stop arguing, like when they get stoned from smoking marijuana and reveal some of the raw moments of their past life while descending into laughter.
These two roles could easily descend into grating and argumentative if they were played by two less experienced actors. Clarence Gilyard is well-known for his TV roles as Jimmy Trivette on TV’s “Walker,Texas Ranger” and as Conrad Masters in “Matlock.” His movie credits include “Die Hard,” “Top Gun,” and the “Karate Kid Part II.” He now teaches acting at the University of Nevada Las Vegas and works professionally as an actor and director at venues across the globe. He currently serves as the executive director for the Neil Simon Festival.
His counterpart, Richard Bugg, is the Neil Simon Festival founder and executive producer. He has directed several of the company’s plays in past seasons and is also currently a professor of theatre at Southern Utah University.
Gilyard and Bugg do have a small supporting cast in this play but they are little more than a backdrop for these two characters. Amber James plays Laurie, a recovering junkie/art student. I was surprised to find out this character was a junkie. Until the moment of reveal by her dealer, The Cowboy (Nathan Smith), she looked like an innocent, naive college student. Perhaps a hint of her past in her costume or character would have given some more believability to her role.
Smith’s cowboy is a genuine smarmy bully and Keaton Jones’ Gilley is a mixed up thug. He transforms well from his role as the awkward Ellard in “The Foreigner” to a young wanna-be criminal in “I’m Not Rappaport.” Clara, played by Melissa Nield, is a complicated daughter fighting her past, her present and her future role as the daughter of Nat. She does a great job of giving her character depth in the few moments she is on stage.
I watched “I’m Not Rappaport” with a very intimate audience, which is a shame. This is a funny, witty and touching play performed by two very talented actors. It makes for a great night out; although I would not suggest it for pre-teen audiences as it is full of bad language and some adult themes.
However, for those of us who march steadily toward older age, it is a message of hope that there is still adventure ahead.
“I’m Not Rappaport” plays in the Heritage Theatre through Aug. 6. Tickets can be purchased at www.simonfest.org.