Since its premiere in 1996, Jeff Baron’s Visiting Mr Green has played to 37 countries, though this is its first outing in the West End. It is easy to see why it has travelled so well. This two-hander explores intergenerational friction, family break-up and stubborn prejudice: issues that export all too well. Its tale of the healing of old wounds at the hands of a stranger is attractive. And its central message, that we should love people as they are, not as we wish they were, is one that we can all learn from. Yet, even though the good nature of the piece comes across in Patrick Garland’s staging, the flaws in it also stick out. The revelations seem too contrived, the ending too sentimental, the characters too polarised.
It is not helped by the fact that the staging is, initially at least, pretty tepid. The scene is Manhattan, in the squalid apartment of Mr Green, a lonely old man who has recently buried his wife, and with her his will to live. He is visited by Ross Gardiner, a successful young businessman who has been ordered to visit the old man weekly as punishment for nearly running him over. But the mess somehow looks too structured here, rather than the sorry chaos of neglect. And, although Warren Mitchell cuts a forlorn, prickly figure, I didn’t quite believe that this was a man in the grip of recent grief. The opening scenes are intended to be sticky, but they are fairly stiff dramatically too.
Slowly, things hot up. It emerges that both men are Jewish, both are lonely and both are estranged from their families. Green has cut off his daughter for marrying a non-Jew; Gardiner, who is gay, has been rejected by his father. Gardiner’s hurt eventually opens Green’s eyes, and so the play touches on the thorny issue of faith and tolerance. This is welcome, but it would go deeper if there were more shades of grey: if Gardiner’s offstage father were not a downright bigot, for example.
Lovely work, though, from Mitchell, who, as Green, puts one in mind of a tortoise emerging from its shell, and Gideon Turner, who suggests a layer of raw pain beneath Gardiner’s confident exterior.
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