There’s a big difference between a simple work and a simplistic one. About the midpoint of his first play “Visiting Mr. Green,” writer Jeff Baron loses sight of the distinction. It’s a shame, because what begins as an appealing, if unambitious, comedy, abruptly disintegrates into a contrived and treacly issue drama.
The title character, played by Harold Gould, is an 86-year-old Jewish widower, and therefore, of course, a difficult but lovable curmudgeon. His foil is Ross Gardiner (Daniel Nathan Spector), a young man ordered by a judge to visit Mr. Green after nearly hitting the old man with his car and being charged with reckless driving. Never mind this first contrivance; it’s simply a means of forcing together two characters who want nothing to do with each other.
Mr. Green, still deeply depressed from his wife’s recent passing, won’t admit to being terribly lonely or needing help. Ross, a rising corporate executive in training for the marathon, feels he has better things to do with his time. From the opening moments, it’s clear exactly where this play is going: Mr. Green will gradually open up and share the lessons of his life with his new young friend, and Ross will learn how to help his charge without Mr. Green needing to acknowledge it. A surrogate father-son relationship will develop and everyone will emerge wiser and happier for the experience.
And the rest of the first act is indeed just this predictable. Mr. Green and Ross battle their way to friendship in a well-executed pas de deux, and the audience laughs appreciatively at the octogenarian’s irascibility and the younger man’s exasperation. It’s all familiar, transparent and exceedingly charming.
And then, disaster strikes. The playwright adds a plot. Actually, not so much a plot as an issue: Ross tells Mr. Green that he’s gay and that his family refuses to accept it. Soon, Mr. Green throws in an issue of his own: He and his wife had a daughter who married outside the faith and to this day he hasn’t forgiven her. For the sake of substance and depth, the play has to sacrifice every shred of believability and easy-going charm.
Perhaps if Baron had sprinkled his earnestness throughout the whole play, coating his comedy with a light touch of saccharine, the second act may not have been quite so painfully forced and mawkish. But the play so abruptly switches from character-based comedy to issue-based debate that Mr. Green and Ross immediately cease being people and become functional mouthpieces for social points of view.
And, strangely, it’s when the supposedly contemporary issues are thrown in that “Visiting Mr. Green,” receiving its West Coast premiere, begins to feel decades out of date. Ross is a gay man in ’90s Manhattan who insists he can’t, on principle, be closeted to a religious senior citizen but won’t come out at work and won’t date out of fear. Mr. Green, born in America and living on the Upper West Side, has a consciousness out of “Fiddler on the Roof.” What there is of a debate can’t really be settled anyway; the only out is for the men to hug and hope the audience will cry instead of cringe.
There is a fine performance here from Gould, who shows off his impeccable comic timing in the first act. Spector does fairly well with the straight-man role, although director Andrew Robinson could have guided him toward more varied reactions to Mr. Green’s rigid eccentricities. Gary Wissman’s set appropriately evokes a space that hasn’t been changed in many years, and Maggie Morgan’s costumes subtly communicate important changes in the story. The melancholy tones of Michael Greenhill’s music between scenes is effective in the first act but becomes cloying, along with the rest of the play, in the second.