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A CurtainUp Review

Visiting Mr. Green -- Again

I first visited Eli Wallach, playing a surly octogenarian widower living in Manhattan's Upper West Side at the Berkshire Theatre Festival two summers ago. The buzz was less about the arrival of a new playwright's voice (Jeff Baron) than the return of Eli Wallach to the stage. The play had enough laughter to offset what was clearly designed to put a lump in the throat and Mr. Wallach's flawless performance made it easy to overlook the dated and overly polemical situation revolving around the secondary character's problem.

Since then the show has traveled to Coconut Grove, Florida, with David Alan Basche playing Ross Gardiner (the young man who visits Mr. Green) and Lonny Price directing. It is this production that has recently settled in at the Union Square Theatre. While I enjoyed Mr. Wallach in the Berkshires I thought it best for another critic to cast a fresh eye on the New York production, but a scheduling problem nixed that plan. Thus here I am doing my own second take on the original production.

To cut right to the chase from this lengthy introduction, Mr. Wallach is still the show's linchpin. In fact, being familiar with the play I found myself even more focused on the nuances of his performance which struck me as even better the second time around. The man is a marvel. Without seeming to act, his every expression and movement show a master craftsman at work. Even when the play is at its hokiest he makes you put aside your reservations and bleed with his pain and laugh at his perfectly timed one-liners.

As for the play, since it's unchanged, I quote from my previous review.
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.
I don't usually like to give away any surprises. However, since this play derives its strength from the opportunity it affords its two characters to interact rather than any unexpected revelations, I might as well add that even as each passing scene reveals the cracks in the old and young man's emotional shells, Mr. Green is not quick 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, May-December version of a buddy movie, it is in the sense that these two unlikely friends do develop a true kinship. In the same sense it is also a dual emotional coming-of-age story, with each man able to change the mind set that has deprived him of love.

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. The play may well enjoy a long life on the touring circuit (as has Beau Jest ) but it pales next to the work of Paula Vogel (HowI Learned To Drive) Moisés S. Kaufman (Gross Indecency) Douglas Carter Beane (As Bees In Honey Drown) and John Logan (Never The Sinner). Having said this, I hasten to praise some of the other talents that add to this production's pleasures:
  • David Alan Basche, as Mr. Greene's foil, is not only handsome but talented. Unlike the seasoned Mr. Wallach, he often seems to be working too hard, and early on in the play has a tendency to address himelf to the audience to enlist their sympathy. However, he warms up, and gets better and better with each passing scene. I might also add that Mr. Wallach is a generous as well as talented actor and allows his young colleague to have his shining moments.

    Lonny Price, the director, deserves kudos for top-notch staging. He moves the actors briskly around the stage and has cut down some of the emphasis on shtik -- as a small example, where all the kitchen cabinets were filled with boxes of Saltine crackers in the original version, here one cabinet suffices. This allows the audience to more fully apreciate the many other small touches in Loren Sherman's finely detailed seedy West Side Manhattan walkup apartment. I also liked the opening up of that claustrophobic apartment to reveal a windowed alcove. This adds to the sense of Mr. Greene's growing reunion with the world outside the narrow confines of his depressed existence.

    David Shire's original music and Aural Fixation's sound design provide fresh punctuation marks between each scene. Gail Brassard gets the costumes just right--right down to those old pointed-collar shirts on Mr. Greene.

    I might add that the Saturday matinee I attended was filled right up to the balcony and the audience (yes, mostly older and probably, predominantly Jewish) was wildly enthusiastic. The word-of-mouth is likely to be as influential as the word-of-critic.
    By Jeff Baron
    Directed by Lonny Price
    Starring Eli Wallch and David Alan Basche
    Union Square Theatre, 100 East 17th St. (212/ 505-0700)
    Previews 11/28/97; opens 12/15/97
    reviewed Elyse Sommer 12/21/97

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