Visiting Mr. Green by Jeff Baron. Directed by Tony Capone.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Joe Digennaro confronts John Trainor
"Please be patient while I conduct this experiment."
Ross Gardiner is a young man assigned by the court to serve a public service duty toward an elderly man he has nearly run over with his car. Every Thursday Ross must visit crotchety old Mr. Green who suffers from a lack of almost everything: memory, kindness, understanding, tolerance, humanity and just plain love. In nine scenes stretched out over two acts these two men play out their peculiar, and oddly growing, friendship. They exasperate one another, admire one another, put up with an awful lot of foolishness and meddling, and just plain enjoy the experience of playing with one another. It is an uneasy friendship forged out of mutual dislike and distrust.
The show premiered at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in 1996 before going to play for a year in New York. These two productions, starring Eli Wallach, launched an international history of over 300 productions in 37 countries in 22 languages and now the play has returned to the region with a two-week stint at The Theatre Barn in New Lebanon, New York. Without Eli Wallach.
Wallach is not missed. In his place is John Trainor in what is, arguably, his finest performance in years. Trainor not only physically and emotionally understands and "gets" Mr. Green, he transforms himself, and the character in so doing, into someone tender, endearing, empirical and mesmerizing. Every ailment this character embodies, from sorrow and bitterness to brittle bones and hysterical imaging, makes sense as Trainor plays it. This is not a man we hate, only to come to tolerate as in Wallach’s classic performance. Trainor’s portrayal is actually deeper, richer and more human. Here is a man who cannot be anything other than himself. His tenderness, well hidden behind a gruff and suspicious exterior persona, emerges periodically with each stage of that appearance softer and more open than the one before it. In Trainor’s hands Mr. Green becomes a human being capable of acceptance and love and not someone forced to rectify the mistakes of decades.
Ross, his almost "killer," is played here by a new actor to the region, Joe Digennaro. Tall, slender, swarthy, handsome he is a menace to the older man, a stranger with unseen motives. Ross’s own gruffness, a neat parallel to Mr. Green’s, makes him the perfect adversary and Digennaro plays every aspect of this with ease and a quiet self-assurance. The actor brings to life elements of the character that clearly telegraph revelations to come and when he brings to the fore the motivating forces of his own life, shocking Mr. Green, the actor takes full possession of the character. In the second act, his secrets on the table, Digennaro lets his character’s foibles unfold like flower petals in the spring, with slow movements and slight bursts of joy. He plays these contrasts for all they are worth.
Tony Capone is expert at drawing nuance out of blatant statements and making large physical pronouncements out of small gestures. He has guided these two men superbly and helped them to anoint their characters with the oil of reality. There is something slick here, something too easy but it’s all right in the end for the Ross and Mr. Green seem very real. It is only in the bows at the end that we completely realize that Trainor has been acting and that Digennaro probably has been acting also. Capone and his actors make a perfect team in creating this lush performance of a play that sometimes seems less than a play, more a collection of sketches from Saturday Night Live. The problem with the show is the week’s wait between each scene.
These men have no visible lives outside of the two rooms in Mr. Green’s apartment, designed by Abe Phelps and Michael Marotta. Since they connect only once a week (for the most part) we are left with a vague sense of their lives and their daily realities. Some of this is addressed in the script but, for the most part, not. That such real characters emerge is a miracle wrought by the director and his cast.
Using Ella Fitzgerald recordings between the scenes is a lovely touch, especially in the second act when she scats to Jewish themes before breaking into Irving Berlin’s "Blue Skies." Her voice and songs add a very nice touch to the production.
For an hour and forty minutes the stage of the Theater Barn becomes another world, one so commonplace you wouldn’t want to go there, but also one so rich in interaction and growth you won’t want to miss being there. So go there, already. You only have a week and a half. So why are you waiting? So, nu? Revelations, chapter who-knows!
Visiting Mr. Green plays at the Theater Barn, located on Route 20 in New Lebanon, New York, through September 14. Tickets are inexpensive and you can book them at 518-794-8989.