Theatre Review: ‘Visiting Mr. Green’ at Jewish Repertory Theatre

Saul Elkin and Nick Stevens in “Visiting Mr. Green” at Jewish Repertory Theatre.

“It’s not an easy thing to be a Jew,” Mr. Green kvetches to his court appointed companion in “Visiting Mr. Green,” the first production in Jewish Repertory Theatre’s 15th season.

How we navigate through these human minefields is what makes us unique, and what makes productions like “Visiting Mr. Green” the type of theatre that is always evocative.

He’s right. Mr. Green lost his wife, was almost hit by a car, and now has to have weekly visits with the driver of the car that almost “killed him,” he grumbles. Not really, says Ross the reluctant guest who admits to driving too fast when Mr. Green wandered into traffic. Accident, death wish or allegory?: whatever the reason, that mishap is the basis for this gentle story about accepting life’s realities while grappling with tradition, family, and self-acceptance in a changing world.

Of course Mr. Green is angry and depressed: his beloved wife of 59 years has died “and she was the healthy one,” he says. His disheveled New York City walk up over the dry cleaning shop he used to own has a noisy faucet, four sets of dishes in his Kosher kitchen, cupboards as bare as Old Mother Hubbard’s, and non-working rotary phone. Even his only photo of his beloved Yetta is still covered and tucked away weeks after shiva has ended.  And then in bursts Ross, with his fancy corporate suit and attaché case: he’s reluctant to be there every Thursday at 7pm, but he respects his obligation to the court – until he finds that he is, despite Mr. Green’s assertions – needed there. Needed to stock the pantry, bring soup from the Kosher deli, tidy up, and draw Mr. Green back to life. Mr. Green has his purpose in Ross’ life, too. They banter, they argue, they sandpaper each other’s souls with strong words and opinions until they get there: that exquisite place when mistrust is finally scraped away and grains of acceptance shine.

It’s curious that playwright Jeff Baron’s script debuted within the year before Mitch Albom’s saccharine “Tuesdays with Morrie” was published. Even 21 years later, there’s depth and heart in this script that’s beautifully portrayed in this production. Saul Elkin as Mr. Green (he was Mr. Green when JRT staged this show originally) is irascible, opinionated, high-minded perfection. His slightest gesture speaks volumes: the tilt of an eyebrow, the soft, one-shoulder shrug punctuate sentences without being cliché. Nick Stevens as Ross reveals his character’s complexities in lingering layers. His act two monologue about his relationship with his father is strong,  heartfelt and thoughtful: these are the moments that stay with you. The world is different now than it was 21 years ago when this was written, but there are still those who struggle as Ross does, finding his way through life as someone who can’t bear to displease his parents while wanting to live an authentic life. Director Steve Vaughan handles this simply and elegantly.

The universal truth of “Visiting Mr. Green” is the unpredictability of the human condition. Family doesn’t mean intimate knowledge of each other. Common experience doesn’t mean parallel values. Fear shouldn’t mean hate. As we live our lives and hold onto traditions while watching the world change around us, it’s frightening. How we navigate through these human minefields is what makes us unique, and what makes productions like “Visiting Mr. Green” the type of theatre that is always evocative.

Running time is 2 hours including the 10-minute intermission.

“Visiting Mr. Green” is onstage at Jewish Repertory Theatre until November 12, 2017. For more information, click here.

“Visiting Mr. Green”. . .Again at Jewish Repertory Theatre

Saul Elkin and Nick Stevens in “Visiting Mr. Green” at Jewish Repertory Theatre of Buffalo.

Jewish Repertory Theatre’s 15th season, aptly named A Sentimental Journey, begins next week with a flashback to its first season. “Visiting Mr. Green”, written by corporate executive-turned writer Jeff Baron, was part of JRT’s first season, and it’s back in this season’s line up, with Saul Elkin reprising the role of Mr. Green. Thinking back on his first time in the role, Elkin reflects, “I think I was much more taken with the comedic side of Mr. Green himself. “This time around however I am much more moved and engaged by the ‘reality’ of the story: an elderly widower, lonely and alone and caught up in the bitterness that  comes from his own Jewish orthodoxy,” he says.

It’s this wistful, thoughtful quality that has makes “Visiting Mr. Green” endure. It’s been produced hundreds of times in more than 47 countries since it was written 20 years ago. “I think the reason “Visiting Mr. Green” has traveled so far and lasted so long is that it’s a good story, with characters you care about, including some characters you get to know, but never see,” Baron says.

“Visiting Mr. Green” is a two-hander: Mr. Green has an unlikely meeting with a younger man, portrayed this time around by Nick Stevens. They’re not friends, they’re not family, but somehow they connect. With light funny moments, tension, surprise, and finally acceptance, they learn about each other and themselves through the prism of shared experience.

It’s a very human story, Elkin says, “between a feisty senior citizen and a young man that begins being very contentious and evolves into a warm and loving relationship.”  

Baron’s perspective is similar. “Beyond that,” he says, “since it’s about families, and what we do when close relatives are different from what we hoped they’d be. It’s a situation everyone knows and wrestles with.”

At the heart of this story is the grappling with the oft-taboo topic of sexuality, how it’s understood (or not), and how generations deal with new norms and values. For Baron, this meant reaching back two generations, to his grandmother. “Before I started writing, I spoke at length to quite a few men who shared various aspects of Mr. Green’s history. I always do that kind of research, because I want my characters to be as realistic as possible,” Baron says. He drew on his grandmother’s language, viewpoints, and somewhat isolated world as inspiration for Mr. Green himself.

Elkin connects to this generational push-pull. He says, “The world has certainly changed but old attitudes and values have not completely disappeared…yet.  In addition to the strength of the story and the telling quality of the play, I think it raises issues that continue to be relevant.”

Elkin credits director Steve Vaughan for his perspective on the production, on “emphasizing the tensions that are at the heart of the play,” he says, maybe with a bit of modern Chekhov influence, too. “I still think there is lots of funny stuff, but there is also a very human and touching story, Elkin concludes.

Visiting Mr. Green opens at the Jewish Repertory Theatre on October 19 and runs until November i2. Learn more about the season and purchase tickets here.

Promotional consideration paid for by the Theatre Alliance of Buffalo.