Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, September 2008
“Visiting Mr. Green” is gentle little show by Jeff Baron that had its genesis at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in 1996. This is its second local outing since then – the Town Players produced it early in 2007 and now the Theater Barn is mounting it as one of their two small-cast September offerings. It is well-suited to the Barn and to this quieter time of year.
Before the curtain I spoke with Theater Barn Artistic Director Michael Marotta about the interesting similarities between this play and Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks the two-hander the Barn had mounted in this same slot last season. Both concern two lonely people – one over sixty and the other under forty – who are thrust together by circumstances and form a friendship that improves both of their lives. “Six Dance Lessons…,” which is about an older woman and a younger man, is the weaker script, but it has the charm of the music and dancing to waft it along. Visiting Mr. Green, which is about two men, lacks the softening touch that a woman and ballroom dancing provide, but delves deeper into how and why people alienate themselves and others, often to the point of destruction.
Here John Trainor, who had a hand in directing the Town Players production, is the 79-year-old Mr. Green (we never do learn his first name) and Joe DiGennaro is 33-year-old Ross Gardiner. Gardiner nearly hit Mr. Green with his car (or did Mr. Green deliberately walk into traffic?) and has been sentenced to serve his community service visiting Mr. Green in his upper west side Manhattan apartment every Thursday evening. Neither of them it too thrilled with this arrangement.
Both characters in this play are Jewish, Mr. Green devotedly so, and undoubtedly Jews will get more out of certain aspects of the play than non-Jews, but as a non-Jew myself I have enjoyed it both times and did not feel like the outsider at a members-only gathering.
The Jews are a persecuted people, but Mr. Green feels no compunction in persecuting others, while Gardiner feels himself to be the object of persecution. Mr. Green has just lost his wife of 54 years. Gardiner hasn’t touched another human being for four years. Lonely doesn’t begin to describe these men, and since they are men, they lack the social skills and instincts that drive women out into the community. But they give each other strength to take tentative steps back out into the world.
There is a lot to like about these two characters. They are intelligent, hard-working men with strong family ties – compassionate and loving in that awkward, macho manner that men have. Trainor and DiGennaro, under Tony Capone’s direction, play them subtly, avoiding some of the obvious gags in the script for a more realistic interaction.
Trainor is on the young side to play this part, I refer to Mr. Green as being 86 in my previous review and I have no doubt that the character’s age has been lowered here to make Trainor more plausible in the role. He does excellent work in the early scenes as a man who has literally had his soul torn out (Mr. Green’s wife has died unexpectedly of a heart attack only weeks before the action of the play takes place) and has lost all will to live. The difference in Trainor’s aspect between the second and third scenes in the first act is dramatic, and all because of a dish of soup from Fine and Schapiro (I noticed the authentic F&S bag – nice touch). Obviously, it is not one dish of soup that revives Mr. Green, but the soup combined with the human connection brings him back from the brink to a more normal state of curmudgeonliness.
Mr. Green repeatedly insists that he and his beloved Yetta “never had an argument” in 54 years of marriage. One of the best lines in the play is when Gardiner says simply, “Mr. Green, I have a hard time imagining you never having an argument.” Mr. Green lives to argue. It is when his fight comes back that you know he has turned the corner from death into life again.
During the course of the performance I felt as if Degennaro was underplaying Gardiner, but by the end I liked the very subtle and realistic interpretation he and Capone had arrived at for the character. This is not an easy part to play. Mr. Green is a fairly obvious “type” where Gardiner is more enigmatic. We only see these two men together at Mr. Green’s apartment every Thursday, we don’t see, or hear, much about what has been going on in the intervening six days, let alone the rest of their lives. Like I said, these are men. If they had suddenly spilled their guts to each other it would have been stagey and contrived.
Capone has left the play back in the time it was written, and so Gardiner does not carry a cell phone. This is a most jarring look into the rapid rate at which our lives have been electronically consumed. Was it really only twelve years ago that the whole world wasn’t cellularly connected? The answer is apparently yes because, if anyone would have, it would have been a guy like Gardiner, a high-powered executive with American Express. He wouldn’t have brought the food from Fine & Schapiro, he would have called to have it delivered, and he wouldn’t have checked Mr. Green’s phone from the pay phone on the corner. (Pay phones…do we even have those anymore??)
It is quite impossible to replicate a real New York kitchen on stage. They are really nothing more than walk-in closets lined with appliances and white metal cabinets. I believe there is a city ordinance that two people aren’t allowed to squeeze past each other in the kitchen unless they are legally wed…just kidding, but you get the idea. Here set designer Abe Phelps has taken the Seinfeld approach and opened the kitchen out into the apartment, and Marotta has meticulously decorated the set, but he put up the wrong cabinets. Mr. Green is a thrifty man and obviously has not redecorated in a few decades. There is no way there would have been wooden doors on the cabinets. As long as that faux oak was starring me in the face I couldn’t believe that I was in a Manhattan apartment
The major problem with this play is that there need to be fairly long pauses between each of the nine scenes so that the actors can change costumes and the crew can redress the set. Marotta has chosen to cover these pauses with lovely Ella Fitzgerald recordings, which provide as pleasant a way to pass the time as I can imagine. I could just see Mr. & Mrs. Green listening to that music on quiet evenings at home.
Visiting Mr. Green doesn’t seem like one off those plays that would set the world on fire, and it hasn’t quite, but it certainly has grabbed its attention with more than 300 productions world-wide. This is a solid production with a strong cast that provides a thoughtful theatrical diversion for a gentle September evening.
Visiting Mr. Green runs through September 14 at the Theater Barn, located on Rt. 20 just west of the town of New Lebanon, NY. The show runs an hour and forty minutes with one intermission and is suitable for ages 13 and up. Call the box office at 518-794-8989 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008