Chasing the Blues Away

It doesn't require great acting to get a laugh from a Neil Simon comedy or to touch emotions while performing Tennessee Williams. On the other hand, a few extraordinary actors have the innate ability to combine talent, stage presence, and exceptional skills to create spellbinding performances regardless of the quality of the material with which they must work. Crowds would line up, as an old theatrical expression has it, to watch these legends read the phone book. Visiting Mr. Green, now playing at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, doesn't offer its Tony Award-winning star Eli Wallach much of a script, but the cluttered set of the title character's pack-rat apartment does contain 26 phone books; judging from the bravura performance Wallach gives in Jeff Baron's problematic new play, the actor proves that, even at age 82, he can still make us want to hear him read every one of them.

Wallach plays Mr. Green, a man who, since the recent death of his wife, has no friends or family to call him by his first name. Alone after 59 years of marriage, he shuts himself off from life in the apartment he once shared with his wife on Manhattan's Upper West Side, a space he hasn't changed -- or cleaned -- since her funeral. His solitude, however, is unexpectedly shattered by the arrival of Ross Gardiner (David Alan Basche), a yuppyish twentysomething who ran into Mr. Green several weeks before. Almost literally. While speeding, Ross narrowly avoided mowing down the old man as he walked across the street. Unable to get out of his unusual six-month community-service sentence for reckless driving, Ross shows up to make the first of his court-ordered weekly visits to Mr. Green. As it turns out, the judge's sentence rehabilitates both men, renewing each of them through a growing friendship.

On the surface the premise of Visiting Mr. Green seems slight: A young man visits an elderly retiree, resulting in a common bond. (Then again, the plot of Driving Miss Daisy -- mileage results in a meeting of the minds when a black chauffeur takes a job driving an elderly Jewish white woman -- doesn't sound any more exciting.) But the premise isn't the problem. In his first full-length play, Baron refuses to let go of the writing habits he developed working on the television shows A Year in the Life, Sisters, Almost Grown, and The Tracey Ullman Show. Apparently he doesn't trust audiences to sit still for the next scene and has structured his play around nonexistent commercial breaks, ending several of his nine scenes with cliffhangers created out of shocking character revelations. These please-stay-tuned revelations leave the play awash in life lessons on ageism, religious tolerance, alternative lifestyles, and dysfunctional families. I know that a lifetime of theatergoing has jaded and hardened me, but there is only so much understanding I can muster in two hours. And yet my admiration can last for years, and I will remember this production for at least that long, thanks to Wallach's unforgettable performance.

He deftly guides us through the jumbled plot, quickly moving beyond the embodiment of the stereotypical old geezer we first see on-stage; his Mr. Green entices us to follow along with a "well, anything can happen to anybody" suspension of disbelief. Right off the bat Wallach gains our sympathies with his justifiable confusion and anger at a system that has forced a stranger into his home; simultaneously he makes us squirm with his refusal to accept anyone's help, despite his obvious need. Next we are drawn into Mr. Green's world with such mesmerizing power that it becomes clear why Ross can't help but involve himself in the old man's life. Wallach's perfectly timed delivery of Mr. Green's comic frustrations in explaining kosher dishes to a modern young Jew ("Passover!" Green cries. "It's near Easter") is priceless, as is his subtle handling of the play's more dramatic moments. For example, Mr. Green does not explode upon learning that his wife, with whom he shared three-quarters of his life, had kept an important secret from him; rather, he implodes, his spirit deflating before our eyes.

The drama of Mr. Green's situation is gradually blended with humor until he becomes an idealized grandfather -- someone who tells stories of the past that we might actually be interested in hearing. (While listening to him relate how he met his wife -- both were waiting in line for the only toilet in his family's Lower East Side tenement building -- I wistfully regretted all the questions I never asked my grandparents and, to be honest, all the stories I just absently nodded at and promptly forgot.) Not all of Mr. Green's tales are warm remembrances: At one point he tries to give Ross an understanding of the persecution European Jews faced. Avoiding melodrama by nailing the speech's few comic lines, Green pounds into Ross's oblivious head the reasons he -- and Ross's grandparents -- "weren't moving. No one moooooved to America. They were getting the hell out of there."

If it was aiming to hedge its bets on a new play by hiring an old pro in the lead role, the Coconut Grove Playhouse would have been hard pressed to cast anyone better than Wallach. This marks the fourth time the actor has appeared on the playhouse's stage; he and his wife, actress Anne Jackson, starred there in 1970's Twentieth Century, 1987's The Flowering Peach, and 1995's Love Letters. Since his Broadway debut in 1945, he has starred, alone or with Jackson, in more than two dozen widely diverse Broadway hits, including Shakespeare's Henry VIII, the post-World War II favorites Mr. Roberts and Tea House of the August Moon, George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara, Eugene Ionesco's Rhinoceros, Jean Anouilh's Waltz of the Toreadors, Tennessee Williams's The Rose Tattoo (for which he won the Tony), Tom Stoppard and Andre Previn's Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, and Murray Schisgal's Luv, among others.

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