Neat Formula, Messy Debate 

Playhouse West relies on a slightly worn formula to bring new life to an old debate

laywright Jeff Baron's Visiting Mr. Green is the story of two very different men thrown together by freak chance, and what each man has to teach the other. It's exactly the sort of thing that Artistic Director Lois Grandi and her Playhouse West excel at -- a heartwarming tale of reconciliation and redemption, marked by an unerring linearity, predictable dialogue, and nonobjectionable content.

Stripped to its bones -- two people overcoming their initial animosity as one helps the other adjust to reduced circumstances -- this looks suspiciously like Visible Light, another Playhouse West show. In fact, the two shows are so close -- the sets are nearly identical, there are the same implications of class difference, and both rely on the device of cleaning up the homebound character and his home between the first and second acts -- that I suffered déjà vu almost immediately. But formulaic though it may be, it's a formula that works for playgoers who seek warm, life-affirming work, especially when it's neat and orderly.

The titular Mr. Green (Dean Goodman, who counts this as his seventh outing playing an old Jewish man), a retired dry cleaner, is patiently wasting away in his rundown and messy Manhattan apartment, where all the play's action occurs. What's the point of living, now that his beloved wife is gone? Wading through the newspapers and unopened mail comes young executive Ross Gardiner, who drops by once a week to help the old man. You probably know already how this goes: The older man doesn't want any visitors, the younger man has a secret that's hurting him, the two must overcome their own prejudices to help each other.

Goodman is convincing as the shuffling, soup-sipping Mr. Green, and he has a great face for the part. Zach Hummell is stiffer and less certain as Ross, although he handles the angry side of his character well. The first act, which grinds along in precise weekly intervals, is a long, slow buildup with a certain Groundhog Day quality. The second act is more dynamic, as Mr. Green reacts with puzzlement, grief, and then rage to the news that his new friend is a "faygelah."

The most interesting and incisive thing about this play is how two Jewish perspectives on homosexuality are laid out. Mr. Green didn't survive the camps himself, but he is of that generation, complete with the attendant baggage. "You are finishing the job Hitler started," he rails against Ross, adamant that the younger man go forth and multiply, regardless of whether it pleases him to do so or not. Ross asks, quite rightly, if God is demanding that he make some woman (and their children) miserable by agreeing to what would be a sham marriage. It's the collision of interpretations that gives this act its bite, as two traditional obligations (fruitfulness and happiness) smack up against each other. For non-Jews, or anyone who isn't aware of this very real debate in Jewish circles, the second act is an eye-opener. For those who have been following the question, seeing it acted out is almost worth the wait.


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