Tuesday, June 2, 2009

At Stage Nine: a fidgety evening with Mr. Green

Since its debut in 1996 Jeff Baron’s “Visiting Mr. Green” has been an international success, with productions from Australia to Sweden. It tracks the relationship between an elderly Jewish recluse, Mr. Green, and a 29-year-old Jewish business executive, Ross Gardiner, who’s compelled by law to visit him regularly.

So what is this play? Another shot at “The Odd Couple”? Yes, it’s funny. And it’s also poignant. And it sometimes baffles some critics annoyed by its corniness. In a Curtain Up review an anonymous critic declared: “When judged in the context of new plays since my first visit with Mr. Green, I can't say that Jeff Baron's work would warrant a second visit without Eli Wallach as Mr. Green. The homosexuality theme, especially at the beginning of Act Two, struck me as even more dated and overly preachy this time as previously.”

Well, aided by Kauffmans’ Give Us A Hand Productions, Stage Nine brings us a formidable Stephen Kauffman as Mr. Green. Just as formidable is the youthful yet suave Kyle Gundlach as Ross. But try as they may they have a hard time overcoming the monotony of nine scenes in two acts, all following the same pattern.

What triggers the action is Ross’ dubious conviction for reckless driving when he barely missed the senescent Mr. Green, who was wandering into traffic. A judge ordered Ross to perform community service by visiting Mr. Green every Thursday for six months. So each scene goes the same way: Knock, Knock. (no answer.) So Ross comes in because the door is always open. Mr. Green is either asleep or in the toilet. Sometimes Ross brings soup from Fine & Schapiro. (Sometimes not.) Mr. Green wants him to go away. Ross would like to but he can’t. Finally, after half-hearted arguing, he leaves.

Adding to the monotony are the scene changes. During the first change the stage hand amuses the audience when, instead of picking up newspapers scattered on the floor of the shabby New York apartment, she drops another sheet of paper on them. But during subsequent changes she seemed to struggle, looking for a reason to be on stage. Her main function seems to be to indicate a time lapse before the following Thursday.

An ultra-orthodox Jew, short only of a beard and a fur hat, Mr. Green loathes strangers and has deliberately kept his phone disconnected. Though he can’t be bothered to have his noisy water faucet fixed, he carefully segregates his milk from his meat dishes. (Though the play doesn’t explain, the regulation comes from a need to avoid mixing an animal’s flesh with the milk of its mother.) Still, Ross marvels that Mr. Green is the only person Ross knows who has three sets of dishes.

The two men start to bond in the second act, when Mr. Green learns that Ross is Jewish. It’s quite clear, though, that their social and moral worlds are far apart. Inexplicably Ross blurts out a confession of homosexuality. Shocked, Mr. Green can’t condone a “feygeleh.” (The Yiddish word is probably the source for “faggot.”) So what on earth would motivate Ross to expect sympathy from his most intolerant companion?

But Mr. Green is also hiding a dark secret, ultimately unearthed among his pile of unread mail. The play achieves a happy ending when Mr. Green’s life is improved as he begins to tolerate some of the mores considered normal in modern America.

Despite the prowess of the two actors and Director Janelle Kauffman, the play seems to rely too much on cliché. In 1996, when the play opened, homosexuality might have seemed more shocking, but today the only major controversy seems to be over gay marriage. And we continue to be milked by Harvey Milk.

Still, “Visiting Mr. Green” is good for some laughs and an evening of fine acting.

“Visiting Mr. Green” plays on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 4 p.m. through June 21. For tickets and reservations, call (916) 353-1001. See also www.stageninefolsom.com. Admission is $22 General, $20 Seniors & SARTA, $15 Children. Group rates are available. Performances are at the Stage Nine Theatre, 717 Sutter Street in Historic Folsom.

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