BENNINGTON, Vt. — Not long into Jeff Baron’s cliche-ridden comfort-food comedy “Visiting Mr. Green,” a well-intentioned 30-year-old man goes on a tear cleaning up the apartment of an 86-year-old Jewish widower we know only as Mr. Green. But, as the play evolves, it is clear that more than detritus is being cleared out; lives lived in retreat are being tidied up as well.
As played by Richard Howe in director Nathan Stith’s workmanlike Oldcastle Theatre Company production that opened Friday at Bennington Performing Arts Center, Green is a solitary, crusty, curmudgeonly figure — the only remaining survivor of Jewish parents who emigrated to America to escape anti-Semitic persecution in the small Russian village that was their home. He built a life for himself and his recently deceased 78-year-old wife, Yetta, running the family business — a dry cleaning establishment.
He says he and Yetta had no children. “Gone. Everyone’s gone,” Howe’s Green grumbles at one point with a blend of loss, anger, betrayal, confusion.
Green wants nothing to do with the others who live in his apartment building; neglects the mail piling up in his mailbox downstairs even when it bulges to overflowing. He clings to his Judaism as if it were a life preserver.
Green is a minimalist in every way. In his instance, however, less truly is less. Small wonder, then, that Green resists the intrusion into his life of Ross Gardiner (Dean Linnard), a young incipient executive at American Express. Found guilty of reckless driving, he’s been ordered by a judge to visit Mr. Green and see to his needs and his care each week for six months as punishment for having nearly run Green over with his car.
Gardiner wants to be at Green’s apartment no more than Green wants him to be there. As the play progresses, the two make grudging progress toward a coming together until, that is, Gardiner, wilting under Green’s insistence that he settle down with a good woman, is forced to acknowledge he is gay. Green, who cannot grasp the concept nor see beyond the homophobic stereotypes with which he has been raised, launches a withering verbal attack on Gardiner, who has his own unresolved issues about his sexuality and what the acknowledgement of his homosexuality would likely mean in his workplace and among friends. They are issues that already have cost him dearly in terms of his relationships with his mother, his father, a lover; his own self respect. The heated argument that ensues between Green and Gardiner about the realities of prejudice and hypocrisy is one of the evening’s more compelling sequences.
For his part, Green, who has maintained all along that he and Yetta had no children, is forced into an admission that, in fact, they had a daughter named Rachel, who, as far as Green is concerned, is dead to him because she ran off and married a non-Jew.
It should come as no surprise — and even less as a spoiler — that by the time “Visiting Mr. Green” has run its course over a period of weekly visits, Gardiner and Green find resolution in terms of their individual angst and, just as important, their relationship with one another.
Howe is, for the most part, credible, if not especially revelatory, in a somewhat one-temperament portrayal that finds poignancy in the things Mr. Green doesn’t say — his hands, especially when they reach out, fingers grasping in mid-air toward Gardiner. He has nuanced moments of vulnerability; pride; dignity. Howe is particularly affecting and, dare I say it, utterly adorable, when Green describes for Gardiner the circumstances under which he and his much-beloved, deeply missed Yetta met.
Linnard has a much tougher job as the somewhat white bread Gardiner. Baron doesn’t give Linnard much to work with, although Linnard does rise to an occasion when Gardiner talks to Green about the only relationship he had with a man. Linnard also is affecting in a long speech in which Gardiner describes to Green the horrifying circumstances under which he came out to his father.
For all of that, Stith’s production, his first as Oldcastle’s new artistic director, is more descriptive than emotionally convincing or involving; two actors going through their paces in a formulaic play that values cliche over dimension.
At the same time, you can’t help but appreciate on some level Stith wanting to welcome returning Oldcastle audiences after a more-than-year-long pandemic-induced hiatus with a play that is safe, comforting and reassuring.
Clearly, the near-capacity audience at Friday night’s 49th season opening was happy to be “in the safest place in Bennington” — as Stith said in his pre-curtain remarks — watching live theater.