Will ‘Rappaport’ be Jewish Theatre’s last show?

Nat (an old New York Jewish guy): Hey, Rappaport! I haven’t seen you in ages. How have you been?

Midge (an old New York black guy):  I’m not Rappaport.

Nat: Rappaport, what happened to you? You used to be a short, fat guy, and now you’re a tall, skinny guy.

Midge: I’m not Rappaport.

Nat: Rappaport, you used to be a young guy with a beard, and now you’re an old guy with a mustache.

Midge: I’m not Rappaport.

Nat: Rappaport, how has this happened? You used to be a cowardly little white guy, and now you’re a big imposing black guy.

Midge: I’m not Rappaport.

Nat: And you changed your name, too.

This variation on a hoary vaudeville routine found a new lease on life in the play titled — wait for it — “I’m Not Rappaport.” And even if you saw the movie, with Walter Matthau and Ossie Davis, it’s worth another look, courtesy of the West Coast Jewish Theatre.

Playwright and screenwriter Herb Gardner wrote only a handful of plays in his career, but among them were such memorable and durable hits as “A Thousand Clowns,” “Conversations With My Father” and “The Goodbye People.”

In “Rappaport,” he starts on a light, bantering note in the first act, as Nat and Midge, firmly planted on their favorite bench in Central Park, pass the time in conversation.

The year is 1982, and Nat, an old-leftist and erstwhile admirer of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, does most of the talking.

A man of considerable imagination, Nat spins tales of his days as an undercover agent for Uncle Sam one day, or as a fiery labor leader another day.

Midge, a cantankerous guy to begin with, grows more and more skeptical of Nat’s yarns, but can’t avoid getting involved in Nat’s crazy schemes.

In one of the funniest ones, Nat, dressed up as a Mafia boss, enlists Midge as his “hit man,” to rescue a girl from the foils of a vicious drug dealer.

In the second act, the mood darkens as the two geezers face the indignities of physical decline, of becoming “invisible” to younger generations, and are targeted by thugs and con men.

Particularly tense and touching is a confrontation between Nat and his married daughter, Clara, as the latter tries to harness her father’s strange independent ways by pressing him to enter a retirement home or limit himself to organized activities appropriate for the aged and senile.

Veteran actor Jack Axelrod stands out as Nat, unmistakably Jewish without ever descending into caricature.

Carl Crudup as Midge plays more of a straight man, whose ghetto vernacular is initially difficult to follow, but his flashes of anger and assertiveness redeem his manhood.

Maria Spassoff is particularly effective as Nat’s concerned daughter, who thinks she knows better what’s good for him than the father himself.

The man who keeps the West Coast Jewish Theatre together and going is Howard Teichman — producer, director, fundraiser and just about everything else.

I’ve known Teichman for many years and we usually exchange some light banter during intermissions and after the shows, but this time he was uncharacteristically serious and glum.

“ ‘Rappaport’ may well be the last show we’ll ever put on,” he said, and I checked to see whether he was kidding.

He was not. Even though the pay for actors performing in nonequity theaters (fewer than 99 seats) is pitiable, the expenses of renting a theater and production costs are not covered by ticket sales and private donations, he said.

The problem is not limited to Los Angeles. Jewish theaters across the country are closing, even in New York, Teichman said. The exceptions are Phoenix and Chicago, where the local Jewish federations subsidize the Jewish theaters.

Teichman has made the rounds from the Jewish Federation here to Steven Spielberg’s foundation, without success. He is now appealing to members of the Jewish community to keep the theater alive by sending contributions. Also welcome are volunteers to help backstage on shows, staff the box office or read new plays.

“I’m Not Rappaport,” continues through June 23 at the Pico Playhouse, 10508 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, with performances Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. For reservations and to contact Teichman, phone (323) 860-6620, e-mail wcjt@sbcglobal.net or visit wcjt.org.