Throw a couple of polarized misfits on stage and let them rail about society's refusal to accept them, and most theatergoers will likely say with a shrug, "That's a shame. Welcome to the world." If a playwright couches those same issues in the all-embracing language of family discord, though, audience members will more readily identify with the characters' struggles.
That's the basic premise underlying Visiting Mr. Green, Jeff Baron's 1997 play about an elderly Jewish man and a young gay professional who must visit the older man as part of a community-service sentence for nearly hitting him (accidentally) with his car. A long-running success when Eli Wallach starred in the play off-Broadway, the two-character comedy-drama is receiving its regional premiere at the Arvada Center. Despite a glacial pace and abundance of cacophonous sentimentality -- problems that are magnified by performing the intimate piece in an expansive venue -- director Alan Osburn and the actors manage to convey the idea that, while everyone might have a unique way of assimilating, the heartache of parental disapproval strikes a universal, soul-numbing chord.
In fact, as the two-hour play progresses, Mr. Green (Louis Schaefer) and John Wilson (Ross Gardiner) develop more of a volatile father-son relationship than one of wronged citizen and court-appointed penitent. Ross dutifully delivers kosher food to the cantankerous 86-year-old, tries to keep the recent widower's apartment tidy and even attempts to appreciate his use of a few strange-sounding Yiddish terms. At first his weekly visits serve only to widen the gap between the pair. Then, frustrated in his efforts to help, he points out that the grief-hardened Green's unspoken desire to starve himself to death violates Jewish law. Incredulous at the 29-year-old yuppie's correct observation, Green asks, "Are you Jewish?" To which Ross replies (in his best Yiddish sing-song), "Who told you I wasn't?"
Visiting Mr. Green, at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada, through October 3, 303-431-3939
From that point on, the two swap stories and become fast friends until, just before the end of Act One, Ross reveals that he's gay. As Act Two begins, Ross talks of his first gay encounter, a story that prompts Green to retreat into his reactionary shell ("Jewish boys are not faygelehs," he says). Later, though, Green lashes out at Ross, maintaining that, in addition to behaving like women, all gay men are predisposed to "touch each other in the toilet" and "bother little boys." That outburst prompts Ross to compare Green's views about homosexuality with the same sort of anti-Semitic attitudes that compelled Green and his family to flee pre-War Russia. But once Ross discovers that, much like his own father, Green has also ostracized a child -- his daughter married a gentile and, under strict interpretation of Jewish beliefs, is therefore considered dead to her family and the faith -- each man becomes acutely aware of the other's frailties, both real and imagined.
In fact, the performers are at their best when articulating the ways in which their characters serve as familial surrogates to each other. His voice tinged with a mixture of fatherly concern and best-friend camaraderie, Schaefer conveys Green's concern for the son he never had by admitting to Ross, "I was a little bit scared of the girls, too." When Green is forced to listen to a letter that his daughter wrote to his wife, Schaefer's powerful, whispered reaction, "Get that away from me," foreshadows a sharp, precipitous descent into despair that, for a moment, approaches Lear-like proportions. And Wilson has little trouble convincing us of the good-son anxieties Ross has about the well-being of his adopted father figure. Rather than use a variety of ways to illuminate his character's other feelings, though, Wilson's tendency is to shout his lines and insert long pauses between them to the point that nothing is important because, evidently, everything is. During one scene, Ross recounts how he told his father and several of his father's business associates that he was gay. Instead of making an excruciating, under-the-breath observation about his dad's maddening shortcomings, though, Wilson blares the line, "Why am I even talking about this to you?" as if he were waging intergalactic warfare. As a result, Ross and Green's predictable embrace near play's end is less the poignant meeting of two vastly different yet interconnected souls than it is a tender, I'm-okay-you're-okay hug that belongs in group therapy.
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Still, playwright Baron's tale remains affecting and, at times, powerful. Whether it's because we're permitted to recognize our own parent-child conflicts through their eyes or envision what life will be like when we approach the promised end, the characters remind us of the fragile boundaries that distinguish belief from prejudice, forgiveness from capitulation and acceptance from resignation.