Putting on a two-act play with just a couple of actors on stage is always a bit of a challenge. To be successful, the script has to be compelling and the actors skilled. Luckily for Toronto audiences, the new production of Jeff Baron’s much-produced 1996 play Visiting Mr Green, that opened last night, is a winner.
How could it not be with acting legend Theodore Bikel in the title role? He’s now 87-years-old and made his film debut in 1951 in the African Queen. Born in Austria and classically trained at Britain’s RADA, he’s been a multiple award-winning star of American stage, screen and television for almost 60 years. He’s ably supported by up-and-coming local actor Aidan deSalaiz, already a veteran of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival and a graduate of Stratford’s Birmingham Conservatory for Classical Theatre Training. And how refreshing it is to be able to enjoy a play where a gay character is played by an openly gay actor.
Yes, Visiting Mr Green is a gay-themed play. It’s also a Jewish one, produced here by Toronto’s Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company. The plot is simple. Ross Gardiner, a secular Jew, works on Wall Street where to succeed in his chosen career and climb the corporate ladder - not to mention maintain the love and respect of his casually homophobic father - he must hide his sexuality. Or so he thinks. His world begins to change however, when, driving too fast in his car, he almost kills an elderly man as he’s crossing the street. Ross is charged with reckless driving and sentenced to do community service in the form of visiting the victim, the lonely and recently widowed Mr Green. At first, neither man wants anything to do with the other but they put up with it since it’s court-ordered.
These men come from two totally different worlds, despite living in cosmopolitan New York. The older man’s life is focused on family and his traditional, deeply-held Jewish values. The younger guy, meantime, is a worldly man-about-town struggling with the heterosexism of his dad and of his chosen profession along with his own internalized homophobia, a struggle immediately recognizable to those of us who’ve been in the same position. Seemingly these guys have nothing in common apart from their Jewish heritage, but, even there, there are differences as one is observant and the other not. Yet, through the course of the play, they come to realize how much they do in fact share and have in common (and no, Mr Green doesn’t turn out to be gay). Their recognition of this at the end of the play touched me deeply.
This is a serious play but also a very funny one. And its theme and Yiddish-based humour make it a very Jewish one too. It’s also a play that’ll resonate with a gay audience. Bikel is perfect as the elderly Jewish guy that we all know, either in real life or through the movies and television while deSalaiz’s Ross is the embodiment of the young, self-confident gay man, despite struggling with being out at work.
Toronto is having a strong theatre season and Visiting Mr Green has a lot of competition for the attention of theatregoers. But this one deserves your entertainment dollar. Go see it!
Visiting Mr Green plays now through February 18, 2012at Jane Mallett Theatre, St Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street East, Toronto
For tickets, visit the box office, call 416 366 7723 (toll-free 1 800 708 6754)or book online at www.stlc.com
Photo credit: Racheal McCaig