Theatergoers who made the recent production of Trying a monster hit for the Colony Theatre are hereby advised to head on down to Long Beach for International City Theatre’s superb revival of Israel Horovitz’ 1981 two-hander, Park Your Car In Harvard Yard.  Like Trying, Park Your Car takes two people who are different in every possible way (age, sex, education, religion, family background, etc.), puts them in the same space, and lets the sparks fly. Like Trying, affords an actor in his eighties the part of a lifetime.  Like Trying, the actress playing opposite said actor gets the gift of a role so richly drawn that sinking her teeth into it proves a veritable feast, both for the actress and for the audience.

Here, the lucky duo are Joseph Ruskin, who just turned a very spry 84, and whose career goes back to mid 1950s TV, and Jacqueline Schultz, who must be thanking her lucky stars every day to be playing this gift a role, one which could easily put her on Best Actress lists for 2008.  Helming the project is Hope Alexander, who with this production and the recent The Immigrant, proves herself one of our finest “actors’ directors.”

Like Trying, Park Your Car In Harvard Yard is about an elderly yet still vital man facing the final year of his life with the help of a younger woman he has hired to, in a sense, put his affairs in order.

In Park Your Car, the erudite gentleman is former high school teacher Jacob Brackish, and the woman he has taken on as housekeeper is Kathleen Hogan, the recent widow of a man who died suddenly and left her with nothing. Elderly Jew meets middle-aged Irish Catholic.  Complicating matters is the fact that Kathleen blames the grades she received in Brackish’s English and Music Appreciation classes for having destroyed any chance she might once have had of getting a college scholarship and making something of herself. That Brackish also flunked her mother, and her father, and her late husband (to name just three) doesn’t help matters.

Brackish is well aware that his days are numbered (doctors give him six months to a year, max) and tells Kathleen right off that “you’ll still be young when this is over.”  “I’m happy to be here,” deadpans Kathleen, without the hint of a smile either on her face or in her voice.

A word like cantankerous would seem to have been invented to fit Brackish, who even yells back at the radio announcer for misidentifying a Brahms Concerto. The former English teacher has just as many problems with Kathleen’s syntax. “It’s quite difficult for me to follow the complexities of your sentences,” he tells her, only provoking bewilderment from the object of his criticism.  “The antecedents of some of your pronouns are not completely clear,” he elaborates, to little effect.

Kathleen is clearly not used to a man as loquacious as Brackish. (She probably doesn’t know the meaning of the word, either.) Her deceased husband, a short-order cook, was a man of few words. “The only thing he said to let me know a heart attack was coming on was ‘hot’,” Kathleen tells Brackish.

Brackish has much more to say to Kathleen when he learns of their past connection.  “You lied to me!” he shouts at her. “What are you doing in my house?  I will not have this terrible upset in this house, not now, not ever! I want to be alone now to restore the sanctity of my home.” Never one to give up a fight, Kathleen spits back, “No one was ever good enough! You must have hated the ones you couldn’t fail.”

Playwright Horovitz has much fun with Brackish’s much discussed deafness.  The old man is constantly reminding Kathleen that he can’t hear a word without his hearing aid and demanding that she go out and buy him new batteries. Her boss’s deafness gives Kathleen the opportunity to give the geezer a piece of her mind, without worrying that he might take offense at her words.  When he cautions her to be careful not to scald him with her hot iron, she retorts, “Would I love to!” and later she shouts at his back, “I’m going to keep you alive until you apologize to us, and then you can kick off and I can kick off too.”

Fortunately, Horovitz has created not two stereotypes but two flawed but valiant individuals. Brackish bemoans the fact that of the thousands of students he has taught, “not a single one will come around,” and still envies the recently deceased friend who had the life of college professor in England that Brackish would have wished for. When Brackish belittles Kathleen’s life, she comes back with, “I knew how to give a hug and a kiss and get a hug and a kiss, and you didn’t!”

Things begin to move in a quite different direction when Kathleen learns something about Brackish that causes her, and the audience a gasp of astonishment, and ends Act One with a bang.

In fact, one of the delights of Horovitz’ script is its way of moving in different, unexpected ways, the Act One finale revelation only the first of several big ones. Kathleen’s recollection of having seen Brackish’s car “pahked in our yahd” one night sets off another, even more startling plot twist.  In fact, the only truly “expected” elements in Park Your Car’s plot are the certainties that Brackish and Kathleen will end up becoming friends, that the elderly schoolteacher will end up being dead, and that tears are likely to be in the eyes of all but the most hard-hearted audience members.

Horovitz knows well the idiom his characters speak in. Things are “wicked” this and “wicked” that, and Kathleen does indeed say “paahk the caah in the yaahd” several times. The playwright is a master of language, having his characters say things like “An hour away from you is worth more than a fucking day at the beach!” and “Saying you’re a hard man to please is like saying a rattlesnake’s a hard animal to hug!”

Alan Mandell won the proverbial “every award in the book” for his performance in Trying, and the even older Ruskin does work here that holds its own against Mandell’s. It’s hard to play cantankerous and unlovable and still get the audience to care about you, but Ruskin does indeed do that, showing us the loneliness Brackish hides with an acerbic manner, the joy his music brings him, and his oh so human need to be loved.

Whereas in Trying, the acting scales were balanced a bit more in the favor of the male role, here it’s the woman who benefits from the more colorful character, and Schultz plays Kathleen for everything she’s worth. Smart-mouthed and never one to back down from a fight, Schultz also reveals Kathleen’s softer side, and the heart she keeps hidden under a hard-bitten exterior. Horovitz has written and Schultz delivers, exquisitely, an actor’s dream monolog about Kathleen’s marriage, her husband, his death, and her regrets of a life in which she was “KO’d right from the first bell.” Wow!

The design elements are every bit at the level a Class A production like this one deserves.  John Iacovelli’s set not only depicts Brackish’s house to perfection, but is a great fit with ICT’s thrust stage.  In one particularly effect set/lighting moment, Kathleen rushes out of Brackish’s living room and into her bedroom.  Lights up reveal the wall separating living room and bedroom to be a scrim, and we see Kathleen fall onto her bed and start to cry when Brackish’s bullying becomes too much for her.  Kudos to lighting designer Jared A. Sayeg for this and other moments. Paul Fabre’s sound design is a carefully constructed patchwork of many different pieces of music, from classical to Phoebe Snow, and a public radio announcer’s words, recorded especially for this production by Horovitz himself.

With writing, performances, and direction as fine as those on display in Park Your Car In Harvard Yard, it’s hard to imagine any audience member leaving the theater unmoved. This is a production which more than merits the loud, sustained applause that greeted it on opening night…and then some.

International City Theatre, 300 East Ocean Blvd., Long Beach.

–Steven Stanley
May 2, 2008
Photos: Shashin Desai

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