Over the nearly four years I've been reviewing theatre for The Globe and Mail, I've learned to shrug off most of the irritations that come with sitting in the dark with strangers on a nightly basis. Ringing phones, the crinkling of candy wrappers, whispers than aren't – I can keep my cool.
I have remained, however, stubbornly snobbish about entrance applause for stars. It gets my goat when my fellow audience members clap because someone famous has simply shown up for work.
And yet, if any actor deserves such a reception, Theodore Bikel might.
At 87, Broadway's original Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music still has the commanding presence to make children and nuns stand up straight. There must be something about that role that leads to long careers – witness the ongoing success of Christopher Plummer, a relative spring chicken at 82.
It's only too bad that Bikel's chosen to make his latest stage appearance in a piece of captain-von-claptrap like Visiting Mr. Green.
Recently Calgarians got to see his famous Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, a role he's played more than 2,000 times. And last spring, Montrealers got to see the Jewish-American legend in a brand-new Canadian musical, Lies My Father Told Me, based on the 1975 Canadian film of the same name.
Thanks to the artistic conservatism of the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company, however, Torontonians get to see Bikel's warm, funny talent wasted on a dated and schematic dramedy.
In Jeff Baron's well-meaning but ultimately patronizing 1996 play, young executive Ross Gardiner (Aidan deSalaiz) is sentenced to community service after he nearly runs over widower Mr. Green (Bikel) in his car. In a twist that would barely carry water as a wacky sitcom premise, the judge decides that his punishment should be served out playing social worker to the man he nearly flattened.
Over the course of the first act, Ross plays straight man to Mr. Green's Yiddish-inflected, shrug-punctuated punchlines as the two, predictably, slowly gain one another's trust.
"Were you born here?" asks Ross, trying to make conversation.
"In this apartment?" replies Mr. Green, turning the final word into a rising arpeggio – and the fact that he gets a laugh from a cheap line like this is proof of his knack with timing.
For the bulk of first act, Baron's play seems like – though it hardly seems possible such a thing might exist – a lighter, less heady version of Tuesdays with Morrie. Then, finally, something resembling a conflict shows up: Ross reveals that he is gay. Cue the intermission on that cliffhanger.
And so, in its second half, Visiting Mr. Green turns preachy as Ross repeatedly tries to convince his gentle, elderly bigot friend that it's okay to be gay – and that the intolerance that homosexuals face in the nebulous time period in which this production is set is not all that different from what Jews faced in the past.
Mr. Green, meanwhile, keeps shutting Ross down with lines like: "You may not know this, but Jewish boys are not fagelah." I'm not sure if this is supposed to be funny or shocking or what – but it happens, repeatedly.
So what year is Visiting Mr. Green set in anyway? The props that litter Cameron Porteous's cramped apartment set hold some clues. There are a few recent copies of The New Yorker visible on the floor, piled on top of a bunch of older People magazines. But that discovery only leads to more baffling questions: What old Jewish bigot – whose prejudices, we learn, extend well beyond gays – subscribes to The New Yorker and People? Scratch that – what human being of any kind subscribes to both those magazines?
As Ross, deSalaiz does more recitation than acting in the first act. It doesn't help that director Jen Shuber busies him with a number of meaningless movements – trucking those magazines from the middle of the floor to the side of the stage, for instance.
DeSalaiz eventually does find something believable in his character, but then is promptly overloaded with earnest monologues. It's one thing for Ross to lecture Mr. Green, but does he have to lecture us as well? It's hard to believe anyone would have found this provocative in the 1970s, let alone in the 1990s. In 2012, the whole play mostly seems moot.
And yet, time moves at different speeds for different people. Two rows behind me, an older woman asked her seatmate to pass a tissue to wipe her tears away as the play lurches to its obvious conclusion. The Harold Green Jewish Theatre has not done badly for itself underestimating its audience.
Visiting Mr. Green runs until Feb. 18.
Visiting Mr. Green
- Written by Jeff Baron
- Directed by Jen Shuber
- Starring Theodore Bikel
- A Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company production
- At the Jane Mallett Theatre in Toronto
- 2 stars