God's in the Details
I enjoyed almost every moment of Visiting Mr. Green, but the title character's Russian-style glass teacups disarmed me completely. During my teens, my Hungarian stepfather used to bring me tea with whiskey, lemon and honey in just such a cup whenever I was in bed with a cold. And the cups provided only one example of the loving meticulousness of Anthony Powell's production. There was also the way the grime on the doors of the kitchen cabinets was concentrated around the handles, the sooty, oddly beautiful lace curtain defining Mr. Green's one window, the mezuzah on his bedroom door.
But it was really Ben Hammer's rich and grounded interpretation of the title character that made the production soar.
In and of itself, Jeff Baron's play is a slight one, though it has a genuine sweetness. A young business executive is ordered by a judge to pay weekly visits to the old man he almost hit with his car. He's annoyed at the obligation, and the befuddled, angry old man doesn't want him around anyway. But the judge is adamant. We all have some sense of what will happen next. These unlikely people will come to know each other, acquire mutual respect and form some kind of bond. But the devil -- and God -- is in the details. Though the dialogue feels flat at first, things soon become genuinely interesting, even mildly surprising. We're treated to insight, humor derived from gritty human foibles, and a deeply touching ending.
During the opening scenes, Aaron Serotsky's Ross Gardiner is a typical well-dressed and impatient businessman. It's fun watching him start to worry about Mr. Green, to coax him to eat and to come to care for him. Eventually, Gardiner reveals his own vulnerability, and we want the old man to provide the understanding and comfort Ross's own father withholds, but Mr. Green remains stubbornly wedded to an authoritarian Jewish tradition. Serotsky is always an energetic and expressive actor, yet here he damps down his natural ebullience in favor of a more subtle and nuanced performance, without losing any of his customary humor and charm. As a result, it's doubly effective when Ross does express grief or explode in anger. Ben Hammer is living proof that the Method approach to acting is still one of the most effective imaginable. He is so deeply immersed in the character of Mr. Green that he doesn't have to say a word to communicate what he's feeling; his face, body and aura do it for him. His silences express a world of pain, love and experience. In the play's very last scene, the set of Hammer's shoulders alone could move you to tears, even before he speaks the two quietly vibrating words that end the evening.
As a critic, I see a lot of theater. Sometimes I leave after a show feeling cheated or manipulated, sometimes as if I'd enjoyed a mouthful of cotton candy -- tasty but evanescent -- and sometimes annoyed or condescended to. Occasionally, I'm just plain tired. But every now and then, I feel...nourished, I guess. Quietly happy. And I remember why theater matters.
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