As fundamentally synthetic as it is critic-proof, Israel Horovitz's "Park Your Car in Harvard Yard" recalls the days when first-rate stars and a proficient mounting would keep an audience satisfied. First seen on Broadway in 1991 with Jason Robards and Judith Ivey, this two-hander about a crusty, dying schoolteacher and the embittered former student that he unwittingly employs laces bald contrivance with enjoyable histrionics, which the lovingly appointed International City Theatre staging delivers.
Credit goes to director Hope Alexander and actors Joseph Ruskin and Jacqueline Schultz, who do estimable work. Ruskin plays Jacob Brackish, a long-retired English literature and music appreciation teacher. Jacob has outlived most colleagues and many students, and, as he casually notes at the outset, this year will be his last. Schultz plays Kathleen Rogan, his new housekeeper, who has tacit reasons to live with the tyrannical instructor who kept her and half her family from college scholarships.
In predictable manner, they bicker, dissemble and eventually appreciate each other. Original storytelling is not "Yard's" strong suit. Horovitz's writing is most effective when it addresses the joys and sorrows of teaching and the delicate transference that can occur between instructor and pupil.
Watching both actors jockey between astringency and sentiment is its own lesson in fine acting. Ruskin's plum-toned sonority and expressive range find a perfect outlet in Jacob, even the odd bobbled line exposing the vulnerable soul beneath his cantankerous exterior. The ever-reliable Schultz fully inhabits Kathleen, weaving the cowed ex-schoolgirl and defiant adult into a total characterization.
Alexander's intelligent direction takes a leisurely pace, but then, so does the yearlong narrative. Set designer John Iacovelli provides an excellent Colonial framework filled with choice details, which Jared A. Sayeg lights with unfussy precision. Sound designer Paul Fabre stays on top of the many music cues, with author Horovitz doing a very funny voice-over as a radio host who mirrors Jacob's decline.
That aspect, like the late-inning revelation about Jacob and his relationship to Kathleen's family, typifies the weaknesses in Horovitz's script, which leans heavily on hokum and emotional manipulation. Even so, susceptible viewers may find themselves moist-eyed as "Harvard Yard" reaches its foreseeable conclusion.
'Park Your Car in Harvard Yard'
Where: International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays
Ends: May 25
Price: $32 to $42
Contact: (562) 436-4610
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes