Now starring: the guy next door

Several new plays focus on the 'little man,' telling stories about social classes, corporate greed, the elderly.

Maybe it's the Enron scandal or celebrity fatigue, but the "little man" has taken center stage in several New York plays, including "The Prince and the Pauper," "I'm Not Rappaport," "21 Dog Days at Amazon.com," and "A Man of No Importance."

The wisdom offered varies from hoary platitudes about class to a look at the commercial rites of a privileged few. But do they really speak for you and me?

In the musical based on Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper, playing at the Lamb's Theater, the 10-year old Pauper (Gerard Canonico) changes places with the Prince of Wales (Dennis Michael Hall) in the final days of Henry VIII and alters history.

The Pauper is merciful to his people, but when he learns that with his new power comes responsibility, he happily returns the scepter. The Prince, however, learns to hate the underclass, even though he briefly shared their poverty and desperation.

Trite platitudes are buried in a good-versus-evil plot, where the Pauper is knighted, and the monarchy's abuses are forgotten in the triumph of virtue.

So what is of value? Native intelligence does wittily trump poor origins, and learning to "walk in someone else's shoes" is an adventure. Audiences may also ponder the mutability of class and identity, as 12 actors fluidly double as London townspeople, palace staff, the poor, and royalty.

* * *

The dispensers of wisdom in the revival of Herb Gardner's comedy I'm Not Rappaport, are two octogenarians on a New York City park bench. These strangers share ailments and complaints, old victories and new losses through jokes and soft-shoe routines that try to sum up aging.

But both are threatened. Nat (Judd Hirsch), a former radical, has a daughter who wants him to stop rabble rousing at supermarkets and spinning fantasies of alternative identities. Midge (Ben Vereen), once a respected apartment superintendent, hides from his boss so he won't be fired.

When they encounter a violent con artist and a vicious drug dealer, they emerge physically battered but spiritually renewed.

We are told that age has moved the two beyond fear, so they are stronger than those who dismiss them. These two offer uncommon sense, a comic antidote for myopic views on aging.

* * *

Not as convincing is the betrayal of youth lamented by Mike Daisey in his one-man show, 21 Dog Days at Amazon.com.

A former aesthetics major joins the dotcom revolution inspired by the cult of "Jeff," Amazon's founder and CEO, and lands in an infernal customer-service department focused on shortening calls. Daisey succeeds by hanging up on customers.

Then he comes up with a business plan and is ecstatic to be kicked upstairs to the development office. But he finds complete indifference to his ideas.

Daisey is paid well to do nothing. Like his co-workers, he could spend time watching his stock, but he ditches the job to find useful work. Ironically, he's besieged with offers from firms that covet his Amazon cachet.

The unique unreality of the high-flying dotcom revolution and Daisey's surreal portrait of innocence lost make this show worthwhile, but this "little man" was a member of a privileged few.

His outrage speaks for us when he takes aim at the waste of corporate America – the false status and greed. But as a cautionary tale, he fails today's 25-year-olds, who may envy his chance to thumb his nose at millions in options to say "I count."

* * *

In A Man of No Importance, an emotionally repressed middle-aged bus driver who produces amateur theater and lives in 1964 Dublin finds the courage to "come out." The new musical at Lincoln Center, by the "Ragtime" team, tells the story of Alfie (Roger Rees) through a group of amateur players.

Backtracking from the cancellation of his production of Oscar Wilde's "Salome," we visit his inhibited home life with his intrepid sister and the bus where he reads Wilde. The latter supposedly clues us to an inner world, where he, like Wilde, cherishes art and the "love that dares not speak its name." Alfie's secret love is a fellow bus driver, who invites him out one night. Alfie flees, fearful of being found out.

Then he courts disaster when he encourages his Salome to play her lust for John the Baptist as innocent instead of sinful. Soon an offended player reports the show as blasphemous to the church sponsoring them.

After Alfie loses his show, he decides to "come out." He gets mugged and publicly disgraced, but is glad he can be honest. He also finds support in forbidden passions of others – like Salome's out-of-wedlock pregnancy.

While it takes courage to express unconventional love, libertine values aren't universal, especially if you consider such consequences as babies without fathers. Another problem with this play is that Alfie's feelings are relayed through others. This faux common man remains a cipher, as wooden as this musical.

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