Eli Wallach tries manfully to save Visiting Mr. Green from the South Florida retirement-home circuit where, if there is such a thing, it belongs. We are informed that the author, Jeff Baron, “left a successful corporate career to be a writer.” That ex-career may have induced such by-the-numbers playwriting where everything inches predictably from dot to connectable dot, and a sprinkling of simplistic gags is meant to gussy up the schematic trajectory.
Green, a highly crotchety advanced octogenarian – his mishegoss exacerbated by the recent death of his beloved wife, Rose – was almost run over by young Ross Gardiner, who works for American Express, a company, we are to believe, Green has never heard of. A judge sentences Ross to six months of weekly visits to Green in his apartment full of accumulated rubbish, with a fridge empty of victuals. But Green fiercely resists Ross, despite the good food and attempts at making order he provides. Only through extended, and rather monotonous, efforts does Ross break down Green’s stubbornness – especially with the revelation that he, too, is Jewish.
To drag this tedious exercise into a second act, Ross must also confess that he is homosexual, thereby eliciting comic incredulity and bumptious efforts to convert him to heterosexuality. But everything, as you agonizingly expected, comes out hunky-dory. Ross turns Green into the sympathetic father surrogate he sorely needs, and induces the codger who, in Orthodox Jewish fashion, “buried” his only child when she married a goy, to make truly paternal peace with her. In the end, all is as rosy as if Rose (who secretly maintained relations with the daughter) were with us yet.
Eli Wallach does a fine job of making Green come alive without pathos or exaggeration, and without whoring after audience adulation. This is a canny, carefully calibrated performance deserving to be in a far better play than Baron has cooked up. As Ross, David Alan Basche is passable, though a trifle too bland. Lonny Price has capably directed a well-designed production (set by Loren Sherman, costumes by Gail Brassard, lighting by Phil Monat), for which David Shire has composed good but oversophisticated music. The play illustrates the great American curse of everyone, however ill-suited, wanting to be in show business; for Jeff Baron’s sake, let’s hope that corporate business will take back its prodigal son.