Things You Don't Already Know

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There are plays like rowboats and plays like motorboats. So says Judd Hirsch, who has known both. He prefers the motorboats. Like I'm Not Rappaport, the Herb Gardner comedy that won Hirsch, playing a very very old man, his first Tony Award, in 1986.

"You don't have to get out and row the boat," says Hirsch. "You just put on the engine and put on your make-up."

He thinks he's in a motorboat now. It's called Below the Belt; it's by Richard Dresser, who has a pretty good track record Off-Broadway, and it's a play at the John Houseman on 42nd Street, a rather spooky comedy, about three company men hustling to top one another in the product-checking department of some mysterious, anonymous factory compound somewhere in the middle of a mysterious desert through which runs a river polluted by the waste from the factory.

We do not know what the factory makes. We do not know what those yellow eyes are, out there at the fringes of the compound, staring in. The three men don't know either.

The men are: Merkin, a nervous, self-protective supervisor; Hanrahan, a hard-bitten time-server; and Dobbitt, an eager newcomer. Jude Ciccolella plays Merkin. Robert Sean Leonard plays Dobbitt. You know who plays Hanrahan.

Here is a fragment of the opening scene. Dobbitt has just entered and gone over to help Hanrahan find the "y" key on an ancient typewriter.

HANRAHAN: I don't like people looking over my shoulder, passing judgement. There's going to be trouble if you pry into my affairs. Who are you, anyway?
DOBBITT: I'm Dobbitt. You must be Hanrahan.
HANRAHAN: I must be Hanrahan? I don't have a choice? . . . Who are you to barge into my room and tell me who I must be?

"Well, I mean," said Hirsch, putting away a healthy chicken-and spinach salad a half-block from the theatre, "you gotta have some sense of humor to play this Hanrahan. He's Mr. Acid. Walking bile. You're not going to make him happy, let's put it that way."

He chewed, thought.

"Dobbitt," he said, pityingly. "The name practically describes the character. A rather likable, innocent person [less likable, less innocent, before the play's over]. If Dobbitt doesn't walk into the room, there's no play. He walks in, is immediately told to mind his own business. It's called: Nothing pleasant will happen hereafter."

Two cops at the door of the diner had already asked Hirsch, whom they knew from TV's Taxi, for his autograph. Now an actor whom Hirsch hadn't seen in years came over to chat. "You still living on Jane Street?" the conversationalist asked. "No," said Hirsch. "I moved two blocks away." With his wry, lantern-jawed grin: "I don't leave places."

How long, one wondered, had it been since Hirsch had last appeared Off-Broadway, a terrain where he'd done a great deal of prize-winning work for more than a decade, culminating with a "sustained performance" career Obie Award in 1979. Since then it's been mostly Broadway, television, films.

"A good question," he said, wrinkling his brow. "It's funny, I never thought of it. You've reminded me. I guess the last one was [Lanford Wilson's] Talley's Folley at Circle Rep in '79. Then we did it in Los Angeles and came back and did it on Broadway."

He looked across the table with good humor.

"You know," he said, "I was up at Long Wharf just before Christmas doing Lyle Kessler's Robbers. I didn't want to do another play. And an unknown play? One of these tryouts?--something that 'has to be developed . . . worked on . . . readings . . . workshops . . . then another venue . . . '"

It sounded almost as cynical as Hanrahan, or as Lenny Bruce doing Judd Hirsch.

"But a girl up there at New Haven, the stage manager, said: 'Read this.' So I read it, sitting in my dressing room, a little bit at a time. When I'd finished, I said: 'Where are they doing this? Who's doing it? Who's in it?' The girl said: 'Well, they'd like you.' Okay, I said, they shouldn't go any further.

"This is the kind of play which, back in the early sixties, when I wanted to become an actor, I used to go to see. Black comedies, like [Arthur Kopit's] Oh Dad, Poor Dad. Really an author's vision, not a morality telling us what we already know about certain parts of society, but things we didn't know about. Because it's in the author's mind, his imagination.

"The best part about it is that usually you think about a play in some commercial fashion. But thanks to [producer] Julian Schlossberg, we're completely insulated. This is not about actors doing another step in a career. In no way is this play anything but a comedy. And good comedy has to have a heart . . . somewhere."

Herb Gardner, in whose Conversations with My Father Hirsch won a second Tony Award, and for which the actor also reaped raves in London, writes comedy with a heart.

Hirsch was uncharacteristically silent for a moment. Then: "It's very strange. In London they compared me to Maggie Smith, who was playing that 99-year-old lady in Three Tall Women."

Maggie Smith he ain't. Judd Hirsch she ain't. Hanrahan he is, only 45 seconds from Broadway if you walk fast.

-- By Jerry Tallmer

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