CurtainUp Main Page

Going Places In the Berkshires:
Mr. Green

June 25, 1996 review by Elyse Sommer

The Berkshire Theatre Festival's 1996 season is off to a splendid start with the world premiere of Visiting Mr. Green. Eli Wallach and his young co-star Neal Huff, do full justice to Jeff Baron's laugh and emotion filled drama. Wallach's razor-sharp timing makes the curmudgeonly Mr.Green linger in the heart and mind long after the play ends. And Huff matches the veteran actor's virtuosity.

The play's background, an Upper West Side apartment painted in depressing gun metal gray, sets the tone for the title character's helplessness and hopelessness over his wife's recent death. The place, besides being gray and dingy, is a mess. On a literal level it's unclean and untidy because Mr. Green is an old man used to having his wife tend to keeping the home clean (though his working days were spent keeping other people's things clean in his dry cleaning business). On a metaphorical level, the mess covers the grief and unresolved issues in Mr. Green's life.

The action begins with Ross Gardiner, an up-and-coming young business executive, knocking on the door of Mr. Green's apartment. The visit is involuntary for Gardiner and unwelcome by Mr. Green. It seems the younger man was sentenced to six months of community service visits to the man he almost ran over with his car. What follows is a series of scenes in which the young man determinedly breaks down the old man's resistance to his presence and help. Each scene is punctuated with much humor. As Ross energetically sweeps the apartment clean of accumulated clutter, stocks the refrigerator with food, and replaces stockpiled paper bags and boxes of saltine crackers with cleaning materials there is increasing evidence of cracks in Mr. Green's narrow-minded and suspicious veneer along with mirror emotional problems in both men. That's not to say he's ready to accept the fact oft Ross' homosexuality. When in one of the play's most touching moments, Green declares "I think God sent you into my life and I think he'll send someone to you" it takes only a split second to take away what he gave, with "Someone like Yetta."

If all this sounds like a theatrical, old-young version of a buddy movie, it is in the sense that these two unlikely friends do develop a true kinship. More than that, however, it is a dual emotional coming-of-age story, with each man able to change the mind set that has deprived him of love. In the end--and the fact that this play has a proper beginning, middle and end is one of its many pleasures--Mr. Green has come to grips with his past, as Ross has with his future. While the lack of acceptance of Ross' sexual identity by Mr. Green who's eighty-six, is understandable, the rejection by his probably middle-aged parents seems a bit dated. This aspect of one of the play's key issues plus a tad too much sermonizing in the beginning of Act Two, are quibbles in an otherwise fully satisfying evening of theater. Like last year's production of the musical Cowgirls, this might travel well to one of New York's smaller theaters and, hopefully, with the same cast.

Since the play centers on two Jewish characters and much of the humor is Jewish in its point of reference, the question of whether you have to be Jewish to appreciate A Visit With Mr. Green is a legitimate one. In fact, during the post-curtain discussion at the Monday night show I attended the playwright himself asked this very question. Audience members who responded felt the theme of love, loss and acceptance was broad enough to transcend the Jewish-specific aspects of the play. My own feeling, as already stated earlier, is that the play's Jewishness is less troublesome than the fact that today's middle-aged generation tends to be much more enlightened than the parents Ross describes. In fact, the playwright's notes in the program and his comments during the discussion indicate that these conversations were really addressed to people like his grandmother, and by way of fictional invention, Mr. Green. The general mood of the audience was as generous as the performance, and with the same balance of serious discussion and humor. One woman stated how meaningful the homosexuality acceptance issue was to her as a Greek-American Lesbian. Another woman light-heartedly offered Mr. Wallach a coupon for discounted saltine crackers.

These Monday night post-theater discussions represent just one of the Berkshire Theatre Festival's several very admirable audience-building efforts. They also offer free noon lectures about the current production there are also regularly scheduled free readings. A lecture about Visiting Mr. Green, which incidentally evolved from just such a reading in New York, is scheduled for June 28th, play readings on July 19th and August 2nd at 2 p.m

© June 25, 1996 Elyse Sommer