Had this painstakingly faithful revival of Herb Gardner’s urban fairy tale — with its heart-tugging formula of bittersweet sentiment, high-minded social attitudes and piss-and-vinegar-cute stars — slipped into town midway through the season, it might have quietly fed Broadway’s yearning for the oblivion of nostalgia. (Same star, same director, same theater — how nostalgic can you get?) Gardner’s old-fashioned brand of feel-good theater can be a welcome antidote for a season weighted with cynical plays and ironic musicals; but as the first show of an up-in-the-air season, it could fuel industry anxiety about the state of things to come. This is, after all, the play that beat out John Guare’s “House of Blue Leaves,” Athol Fugard’s “Blood Knot” and Michael Frayn’s “Benefactors” for the 1986 Tony.
Judd Hirsch returns in this time capsule to show us the stuff that won him his first Tony in the same role. He plays a feisty old geezer named Nat, who spends his days on a bench in Central Park spinning tall tales (and blurting out occasional sad truths) to anyone who stops to listen. Hirsch combines the lowdown skills of physical comedy with the sublime art of intellectual wit to share his honest compassion for an old man fighting to assert his identity and maintain his dignity in the hostile world that New York City had become in 1982. An old-time labor activist and proud of it, Nat relies on the oratorical skills and organizational tactics he picked up in the Communist Party to fend off muggers, yuppies, dope-dealers and the loving but misguided daughter (sensitively played by Mimi Lieber) who wants to put him in a nursing home.
In Hirsch’s laugh-and-cry-a-minute performance, this irresistible character comes alive only when he has a captive audience like Midge, a doddering apartment super hiding from the co-op board that wants to fire him. Played with sweet bluster by Ben Vereen, Midge is both a real friend and a perfect “cause” for Nat, and their two-handed scenes of contention and growing affection are the richest in the play.
But Gardner is too manipulative to let the play’s emotionally honest moments dictate the course of events. Nat and Midge compare their deteriorating eyesight in one wonderful exchange that goes nowhere. Nat and his daughter share a loving memory that is just as quickly dropped. Time and again, such moments of truth are discarded for melodramatic plot complications in which stereotypical villains can really beat up on poor Nat and Midge, victimizing them to the point that their plight becomes absurd — even for the wasteland that was New York back then.
And on that subject, Tony Walton’s soft autumnal set, Pat Collins’ warm lighting and Teresa Snider-Stein’s bland costumes provide exactly the wrong visual clues to that supposedly cold and heartless era. It was Gardner’s style to dazzle an audience with his eccentric characters and burnished lines of comic dialogue. But the point of a good revival is to look beyond the bright lights and show us the dark side of the moon.