One way to regard Israel Horovitz' "Park Your Car in Harvard Yard" is as a scientific experiment in how much chitchat a person can endure. In this case, the experiment has been rigged in favor of the audience, since the chatterers are so gifted.
They are Jason Robards and Judith Ivey. Without them, I suspect the play would be unendurable. Their work is an illuminating example of the actor's art.
"Park Your Car" is about an aging professor who knows he has only a short time left to live. A widower who lives alone in Gloucester, Mass., he needs someone to take care of him. The young woman who answers his ad turns out to be a former pupil, to whom, in fact, he gave very poor grades in music and English.
In the course of nearly two hours, we learn little that matters about either of them. In real life, of course, we seldom know more than the mundane about people around us. In the theater, we expect to penetrate the protective facade of chitchat.
Here, from time to time, the idle chatter leads to moments of revelation that in no way deepen our understanding of the characters. The nuggets often make little sense. The woman, for example, complains that because of the low grades, she was unable to qualify for a scholarship. Nothing about her behavior suggests she was cut out for a scholarly life, so, if the playwright or his character were more sensible, she might thank him for saving her from years of academic drudgery.
But then, academic standards are odd in Eastern Massachusetts.
Toward the end of the play, she asks him to give her a "makeup test" in classical music. He plays 10 musical examples that she must identify (after weeks of study). When she gets a perfect score, he reveals he took this very exam as a freshman at Harvard, where he answered only six of the 10 correctly.
This must have been when Harvard was still a gentleman's school, because anyone who missed more than two of these chestnuts should not have pursued a degree in music. (I confess I missed the Rachmaninoff, but that is because I am a terrible snob and did not even listen to his music until my middle years.)
At the very end of the play, we get a sudden revelation that, had it come an hour earlier, might have given the play some weight. Here it just seems a cheap shock.
Though the play never rises above the trivial, Robards and Ivey are a constant delight. Robards plays a now familiar role, a crank with an extremely dry sense of humor. He brings a great liveliness to the part even though for most of the evening he is quite sedentary.
Ivey is extraordinary.
She can make even the grating Massachusetts accent sound drolly musical. She has such inner vivacity that she can convey the malice and hurt of her character without ever dropping her drearily placid surface. If only she had more to do than iron shirts, boil water and whine!
Director Zoe Caldwell has mined the play's limited resources skillfully. You keep wishing the play were worth all the talent and energy that has been poured into it.
The first thing to note about Israel Horovitz's two-character play "Park Your Card in Harvard Yard," which opened at the Music Box last night, is that it starts off as if we are in for a thin evening. Come to think of it, the last thing to note about it is that it still seems dramatically malnourished at the end - from first to last it doesn't gain any weight.
I suppose there is a story lurking behind this vehicular excuse to parade the formidable, if here only modestly exercised, talents of Judith Ivey and Jason Robards. But such story as there might be tends to keep itself to itself.
The curtain rises on the shabby but comfortable bachelor home in Gloucester, Mass., of Jacob Brackish (Robards), a retired high school teacher who shoved English literature and music appreciation down the unreceptive gullets of countless Gloucester students.
He was apparently a man of sternly rigid standards - flunking generation after generation of Gloucester hopefuls, and in some cases apparently thus effectively blocking their access to higher education. He appears to have been a generally hated figure in the town - and for evident reason.
Now he is old - his doctor gives him only a few months to live - and, preferring to spend his final days at home, he advertises for a housekeeper. Enter the recently widowed Kathleen Hogan (Ivey), who has been left penniless.
It soon transpires that Hogan, and indeed her entire family, were once students of the irascible and unbending Brackish, and all suffered from his perfectionist academic attitudes.
At first this classically odd couple are not unexpectedly at classic odds with one another, but slowly the Bach-ing curmudgeon and his rock-loving housekeeper develop a relationship with one another. This will come as no surprise to devotees of the drama - or to students of television.
There is an ending - the expected one. There are plot demi-semi-developments - one regarding Brackish's hearing aid, the other, his earlier more amatory attachments. And, although the housekeeper never gets quite so educated as Rita in that earlier play about an academic and a woman of the people, yes, she is abruptly won over to the joys of classical music.
Nothing about the play is particularly interesting or especially likely - which is a pity, because I have long admired Horovitz's writing.
But here it is as unobtrusively routine as the pleasantly routine direction by Zoe Caldwell and the effortlessly routine performances by Robards (wispily cantankerous), Ivey (perkily indomitable) and a cat (markedly feline). For me the best aspect of the performance was Ben Edwards' storybook setting - but how long can you really with advantage look at a setting?
Perfervid admirers of Judith Ivey and Jason Robards might have a sufficiently acceptable time with "Park Your Car in Harvard Yard," but merely fervid admirers will probably, like the stars, wish to look for a better parking space.
He is "the oldest living man in Gloucester, Mass.," a crotchety retired high-school teacher who never married. She is the warm-hearted young widow, also childless, who answers his ad for a live-in housekeeper. He is Jewish. She is Catholic. He is a chilly intellectual. She is a sentimental slob. He likes Mozart. She likes Phoebe Snow. He has a hearing aid. She has a big mouth.
So it goes, and goes and goes and goes, in "Park Your Car in Harvard Yard," the Israel Horovitz comedy that has parked Jason Robards and Judith Ivey at the Music Box Theater on Broadway, one of New York's most merciless tow-away zones. The play is one of those one-set, two-actor, odd-couple contraptions that periodically seduce producers in search of low budgets and high returns along the lines of "Same Time, Next Year" or "Educating Rita." This particular example is only five minutes old before the audience is sure that the playwright can only be heading in one of two directions: either one of his characters will die in bed, or both of them will have sex there. In the evening's sole burst of ingenuity, Mr. Horovitz nearly pulls off both these denouements, though the advanced age of Mr. Robards's teacher requires that the carnal climax be achieved by proxy.
As for the inevitable onstage death that follows, even it cannot accurately be said to bring this brazenly padded, intermissionless, almost two-hour anecdote to its final curtain. The character who survives keeps chattering away at the corpse of the deceased for another scene or so, wrapping up loose ends, offering a few sentimental tears and in general assuring the portion of the audience not lost in its own slumber that death can be a happy ending, or had better be, given Broadway ticket prices.
What precedes this coda is so jerrybuilt that it is hard to believe that "Park Your Car in Harvard Yard" was written by one of this country's most prolific professional dramatists, the author of such plays as "The Indian Wants the Bronx," "The Primary English Class" and "North Shore Fish." The evening's only stab at drama is a series of completely unconvincing revelations, all of them involving previously hidden associations between the two characters, that are meted out at the rate of roughly one every five minutes. Most of these surprises are sprung by Ms. Ivey, who turns out to be not the total stranger Mr. Robards takes her for in the opening scene but a former student in his music appreciation class and one whose entire family seems to have known the old teacher in varying degrees of intimacy, ranging from casual to lurid.
In between these bombshells come the jokes, starting with the inevitable insult humor. (She: "Saying you're a hard man to please is kind of like saying a rattlesnake is a hard animal to hug.") Much is made of how much Ms. Ivey's boots leak when she first arrives, and the puddle motif is meticulously upheld a little later when she copes at farcical length with a leaky iron. Mr. Robards's hearing aid is also a source of much buffoonery, especially when Ms. Ivey switches the radio dial from classical to pop when its batteries run out. That radio and its ubiquitous disk jockey prompt a running gag about public-radio pledge drives -- always a rip-roaring source of comedy -- and, when all else fails, Mr. Horovitz allows his otherwise prim characters a smattering of naughty words, not neglecting the new national favorite, "pubic hair." There will always be a hard-core audience for the spectacle of old people and practicing Catholics talking dirty.
"Park Your Car in Harvard Yard" has been staged on a grim Ben Edwards set that overzealously fulfills the script's description of the teacher's home as a "pathetic hovel." The director, Zoe Caldwell, has impressively timed the two most heart-tugging, theme-mongering monologues in the play -- one for him, one for her -- so that they each precisely fill out the length of the syrupy musical selection, the Pachelbel Canon, that just happens to be piping forth from the radio during both of them.
The acting is variable. Ms. Ivey, who can be a gutsy comedienne, seems entirely phony here, from her thick accent to her blubbering efforts to express grief over the rather suspicious number of past family deaths with which Mr. Horovitz hopes to elicit sympathy for her long-suffering character. The actress also is asked to perform an act of self-flagellation such as Broadway has not seen since Ms. Ivey herself engaged in an act of literal breast-beating in the short-lived "Precious Sons."
Sentenced to do much of his acting by variously knitting, wiggling and raising his eyebrows, Mr. Robards does nothing in this play either to augment or to contradict his standing as one of our best actors. Here, as in such other recent Broadway vehicles as "You Can't Take It With You" and "A Month of Sundays," he offers a light version of the tragic old codger he has played in O'Neill and, one hopes, might yet play in "King Lear." As befits his character, Mr. Robards also delivers a few lectures on musical appreciation, including one on a Bach piece in which "the same few notes are repeated in different variations over and over, nothing changed, sometimes slower, sometimes faster." In this sense, I guess, "Park Your Car in Harvard Yard" is just like Bach, or would be if only those faster interludes ever arrived.