Visitation Rites

No good deed goes unpunished in 'Visiting Mr. Green.'

The disoriented, suspicious old man opens his door to a determinedly optimistic young man who claims he's there to help, and unaccountably knows a few things--but not enough--about the elderly fellow. "Who told you my name?" demands Mr. Green, a cantankerous retired dry cleaner. The young fellow, a certain Ross Gardiner, comments from the safety of his trim business suit on the recent death of Mr. Green's wife. "Who told you that?" growls Mr. Green.

Soon Ross catches on that he's been thrust into a game. He brings kosher takeout, and offers to get Mr. Green a plate. The inevitable question: "Who told you I have plates?"

But it turns out that there's a lot these men have not been told about each other, and those revelations form the hinge between the comic first act and more serious second act of Jeff Baron's Visiting Mr. Green. The four-year-old play, originally an off-Broadway vehicle for Eli Wallach, picks up an effective local cast in its Southwest premiere at Invisible Theatre.

Ross doesn't especially want to spend his Thursday nights with Mr. Green, but he's been sentenced to this community service for reckless driving; speeding, he almost ran over the old man as he lurched into traffic.

Ross is not a bad guy. In fact, he seems entirely ordinary. (He's so overtly ordinary that his name seems too much a writerly conceit: a Gardiner tending Green.) But Ross has no particular interest in spending six months of Thursday nights with a possibly senile 86-year-old widower who wants only to be left alone. The men are stuck with each other, though, and soon Ross can't help feeling responsible for Mr. Green, who lives in a cramped Upper West Side apartment crammed with dead flowers, two decades' worth of Manhattan phone books and a lifetime supply of crackers, but little else of sustenance.

Mr. Green is shutting down. Since his wife died, he has ignored the mail, let his phone service lapse, allowed squalor and loneliness to encase him like minerals fossilizing some dead thing from a long past age.

Ross, on the other hand, seems still to be very much contemporary and organic, but even he is in danger of turning to stone at the core. Both men are incredibly lonely, for reasons neither wishes to reveal. While Mr. Green lives in self-imposed seclusion, Ross is a master of assimilation in its many forms, yet, perversely, this is the very source of his isolation.

This is the point at which Baron pops his play out of the superficial Neil Simon feel-good buddy mold; each character has a complex, secret sadness that is partly but not entirely of his own making.

Invisible Theatre has asked critics not to disclose the men's secrets, which makes it difficult to discuss the play's themes and development in any depth. Still, an audience is entitled to come to a new play fresh; this isn't an evening with Sophocles, in which everyone already knows that Oedipus killed his father and married his mother. Suffice it to say that children still have ways of killing their fathers, at least metaphorically, yet they do so not through malevolence but as instruments of fate.

This is a warm comedy, remember, so don't expect anything sinister. Indeed, on paper Mr. Green's and Ross' problems would seem rather trite. Baron makes the situation engaging, however, through his warm portraiture of the none-too-simple protagonists. These lonely men are isolated by choices they have made in response to conditions beyond their control.

As directed by Susan Claassen and Gail Fitzhugh, Edwin Van Woert plays Mr. Green as an ambiguous figure, an odd balance of weakness and lucidity, and not quite a crank with a heart of gold. His sincere religious orthodoxy has made his mind so narrow that it slips through the world like a cat easing through barbed wire, hissing at the inconvenience but shedding not a drop of blood along the way. None of his own, anyway.

Dana Jepsen's Ross is perhaps too easily likeable from beginning to end, but there are worse sins than so guilelessly creating a sympathetic character. The script limits him to being little more than Van Woert's straight man through the first act, but he movingly comes into his own as things turn more serious after intermission.

The gentle Visiting Mr. Green is ultimately about families--how they break apart from within, and how stray, unrelated pieces patch themselves into new families as imperfect but meaningful as the play itself.