The bar has been set very high for plays written about being Jewish inNew York. This is not to say that the experience cannot be entertaining forthose of us who like to live vicariously through the works of Neil Simon,Jerry Seinfeld or Woody Allen. Only that to be any good takes an extra leapwhich may not have been so great twenty or thirty years ago.
Moreover, a production has to be exceptionally good to justify a 40price tag in the cramped auditorium of the Trafalgar Studio 1. And a piecewhich may well, as they say, “play well in the provinces” will notnecessarily hold the same stock with a metropolitan audience. Unfortunately,Visiting Mr Green is one of those shows.
The story starts and ends in the Upper West Side Manhattan apartment ofthe 86-year old Mr. Green, a Jewish refugee from the pogroms of Russia, forwhom the recent death of his wife of 59 years has turned him into areclusive, quietly suicidal and cranky old codger. Into his life comes,literally by accident, eternal bachelor Ross Gardiner who has been orderedby a judge to spend one evening a week doing chores for Mr. Green afternearly mowing him down in traffic. Revelations about their lives – whichwould amount to spoilers if detailed here – roll along, turning theirinitially frosty relationship into one where two lonely people are able tofind some succour in one another’s company.
It is not surprising to hear that this production has been successfullycloned around the world and had a well-received tour of the UK provinces.This is because, despite the modern setting in one of the world’s mosturbane cities, it is peculiarly provincial. Written a mere twelve years ago,it may have been on the cusp of being outmoded then but, in broadlytolerant, inclusive London in 2008, it really feels ancient.
In some ways this is testimony to how far things have progressed sociallyin our fair city. As someone who grew up in, and occasionally visits, theprovinces, where various prejudices still have their sharp edges, I canimagine a play like this still causing a real stir among less cosmopolitantheatregoers. Similarly in countries such as Israel or Croatia whereviolent bigotry is still part of the social and political fabric, the themesof this work must still have the power to stir liberal consciences and upsetconservative ones. But not in London.
Warren Mitchell, who lived at the centre of a maelstrom around hisportrayal of racist Alf Garnett in TV’s Till Death Do Us Part, is, in manyways, the best person for this particular job. He looked like he was havinga couple of “senior moments”, stumbling over some lines and apparently beingthrown by a particularly theatrical bit of coughing from an audience member.However, his stillness shows he is a master of his craft and while it iseasier for a senior citizen to play a senior citizen it is his own frailtythat occasionally turns the frailty of Mr. Green into lumps in our throats.
On the other hand, Gideon Turner’s mannered performance as Ross makes himless convincing as Green’s foil. Spending too much time being angry when heprobably shouldn’t be and not raising the pitch high enough when he shouldbe, he fails to shine in this role. The naturalistic dialogue does not tripoff his tongue as well as it might, which is a shame.
There is much that is witty and engaging about this piece which is worthcherishing. But is has the aroma of a playwright yet to find his feet andrailing against iniquities in an relatively unsophisticated manner. Theplay’s didacticism is a little too overbearing and past its sell-by date toresonate with an audience that learnt its lessons some time ago already.