A reclusive old man wanders from room to room in a cluttered, old-fashioned apartment that hasn’t been attended to since his wife passed away. The furniture is from another era and the walls and bookcases are filled with tchotchkes accumulated over a long lifetime. Old spice bottles and seasonings stand in rows on the shelves in the kitchen, but the refrigerator is empty. Almost visible are the sour, stale smells that permeate such old apartments, clinging to the walls and curtains: an amalgam of moth balls, dirty socks, hundreds of meals of chicken soup and brisket and cabbage, and the fading scents of lavender and rose water.
This is the sanctuary and emotional prison of Mr. Green, a creation of playwright Jeff Baron, whose play “Visiting Mr. Green” is currently dazzling audiences at the Colony Theatre in Burbank. Mr. Green (a perfectly pitched Jack Axelrod) lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, but he almost never ventures out, never has visitors, doesn’t socialize with his neighbors and has disconnected his phone.
“Why should I pay to get calls that are always wrong numbers?” he complains.
Suddenly, Mr. Green’s solitary existence is invaded by a young man who has been sent to “help” him. Actually, he hasn’t been “sent,” he has been “sentenced.” The young man, Ross, (Antonie Knoppers) had nearly hit Mr. Green with his car, even though Mr. Green had stepped into traffic without looking, and so Ross has been sentenced to six months of community service. His assignment is to visit Mr. Green once a week and see to any small jobs or errands that might need to be done.
Mr. Green, indignant at the thought that he might need help, is immediately hostile, and Ross, who isn’t particularly delighted to be there, counters hostility with sudden anger. But the young man persists and eventually breaks through the wall that Mr. Green has built around himself. Finally, unlikely as it might seem, the two become friends.
Though their shared confidences are serious and moving, their shared conversation is hilarious. To Ross’ rhetorical, “How are you?” Mr. Green whines, “What’s the good of complaining?” When Ross asks why Mr. Green has 23 Manhattan phone books, Mr. Green responds, “They come for free!” And when Ross boils some water for tea, Mr. Green comments reprovingly, “You planning to use two teabags?” to which Ross, in mock horror, responds, “What was I thinking!”
Part of the softening up process comes when Mr. Green learns that Ross is Jewish. But he is dismayed when he discovers that Ross knows very little about their shared religion and he becomes even more disconcerted when Ross chides him about some of his beliefs and practices, which Ross considers not only counter-productive but bigoted.
“To be Jewish like you — who needs it?!” Mr. Green responds explosively. “There are rules. There are laws!”
Despite the lightness of the repartee, some serious subjects are explored, secrets shared, and sympathies exchanged. In the end, Ross has made his peace with his own perceived shortcomings while Mr. Green has been guided and helped back to a life of the living.
“Visiting Mr. Green” is a thoroughly absorbing play, beautifully acted by the two principals, and thoughtfully directed by David Rose. Seemingly frivolous at first, the play develops into a provocative and engaging encounter between two intelligent men: well written, funny, and meaningful. Further, it is tastefully staged by some of the best stage designers currently plying their trades in Los Angeles: David Potts on scenery, A. Jeffrey Schoenberg for costumes, Jeremy Pivnick on lighting and Cricket S. Myers on sound.
“Visiting Mr. Green” will continue at the Colony Theatre, 555 North Third St., in Burbank, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. through Sept. 27.
Call (818) 558-7000 for tickets.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.