“When I was first asked to direct Visiting Mr. Green, I read the play and thought … well … sweet,” writes director Yolanda Fleischer in the program notes for the current Jewish Ensemble Theatre production. Hardly encouraging words. Ms. Fleischer goes on to soften the damning of her faint praise with kind words for the cast. Indeed, Visiting Mr. Green is the kind of play fraught with familiar emotions that lives and dies at the hands of the actors.
Ross Gardiner (Timothy McKernan) is a young buck at American Express, Harvard degree in his back pocket and a bright future written on his fresh-scrubbed face. Alas, his driving acumen is less sterling. To atone for his lead foot, a judge demands that he perform community service at the apartment of the befuddled geezer he knocked down. Mr. Green (Arthur J. Beer) is neither a cooperative patient nor a genial host. The first Thursday night the kid shows up, Green puts him through the wringer. Gardiner clearly doesn’t want to be there either. But he takes pity on the geezer, which in turn raises the ire of the old man who already is stewing in his own potent brew of self-pity and longing for his recently deceased wife.
Before the first act is over, comprised of four Thursday-night visits, we learn that Green and Gardiner are both Jews and that the young man is gay. The audience should expect then that the second act will take these revelations to the engine room and fire up the turbines.
If only playwright Jeff Baron had written Mr. Green 10 years younger than the barnacle-clad octogenarian we are supposed to see on stage. Then again it might be casting. Mr. Beer is a hale and hearty bear and he lumbers about the apartment unconvincingly. His Green is a dreamy sad sack mired in grief and pique. He delivers his lines with a deliberateness that too often uses lugubrious diction to telegraph the old man’s emotions. This is a role that requires a reasonable dynamic range: When Green is feeling up, we should see some spice; when he’s feeling down, we shouldn’t forget that he’s capable of feeling up. One longs for the spry rabbinical zest of a Jackie Mason, fleet of tongue and deep of heart.
But Mr. McKernan couldn’t be better as Gardiner, a man at the unhappy frontier of 30 who has made all the right moves to please his parents and their aspirations. And yet they can’t come to grips with his homosexuality and lost love for another gent that withered under their disapproval. When Gardiner rages against them and the orthodoxy of mainstream society, Green can only offer his own toxic allegiance to gnarled tenets of Judaism. Green is so beholden to this astringent religiosity that he sat shiva for a daughter who had the temerity to marry a goy. For 30 years, his beloved wife carried on a correspondence with this phantom daughter right under his wizened nose! This revelation, formulaic as it is, finally allows Gardiner to punch through the geezer’s weakening crust. But by now the old man’s maudlin martyrdom has long worn down the audience’s interest in the kid’s growing self-confidence.
Baron wrote this play, his first, three years before Mitch Albom gave us the equally saccharine Tuesdays with Morrie. No doubt he’s sick of hearing the comparison. Still, of the trifecta of themes — homosexuality, Judaism and the generation gap — the latter is the most facile and, not surprisingly, the one that has catapulted this play onto the world stage. The homosexual and Judaic aspects get a decent if predicable workout, never forcing the audience into discomfort, as more dyspeptic authors would take great delight in doing.
The play has taken on a second life as a diversity-training primer for companies such as Shell Oil which block-booked two recent performances in the Crescent City. More tellingly, the piece is a massive hit in Germany, the land that gave us those world champions of homophobia and anti-Semitism, the Nazis. A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down?!
Visiting Mr. Green by Jeff Baron continues through Jan. 5 at the Jewish Ensemble Theatre in the Aaron DeRoy Theatre (6600 W. Maple Road at Drake, West Bloomfield). Call 248-788-2900 for tickets and more information.Timothy Dugdale writes about theater and books for Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org