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THEATER REVIEW

Connecting across the years

September 10, 2003|Daryl H. Miller | Times Staff Writer

It's time for a bit of housecleaning.

An elderly Manhattanite has retreated from life after his wife's death, and he's letting himself and his apartment go to ruin. Then chance brings a younger man -- lonely too but instinctively nurturing -- into his life. As the younger man tries to spruce things up, he realizes that both of them could stand to clear some mental as well as physical clutter from their lives.

"Visiting Mr. Green," a play from the late 1990s by Jeff Baron, watches as these two strangers become friends. Eli Wallach performed in a production off-Broadway and Harold Gould in one at the Pasadena Playhouse. The just-opened presentation by International City Theatre lacks that sort of star power yet tells the story with such quiet conviction that theatergoers find tears trickling down their cheeks before they realize what's hit them.

To bring the characters together, Baron has come up with an unlikely but serviceable scenario: A judge has ordered that Ross, a rising corporate executive who's not quite 30, perform community service by paying weekly visits to a pedestrian -- 86-year-old Mr. Green -- whom Ross almost struck with his car.

When Ross (David Heymann) first appears at Mr. Green's Upper West Side apartment, the elderly man (Jack Axelrod) seems confused. Then the light bulb flashes on. "What is a murderer doing in my apartment?" the crotchety old guy demands to know.

The apartment -- as rendered by designer Susan Gratch -- is a time capsule sealed off from the larger world, symbolized by lighted windows, high overhead, in neighboring apartment towers.

Suspicious and self-protective, Mr. Green tries to push Ross away. But the old man is lonelier than he wants to admit. In one of many delicately detailed moments in caryn desai's staging, a sense of betrayal seeps into Axelrod's voice as Mr. Green says his wife is "gone, she left me."

Ross, raised to be a dutiful son, begins to take an almost filial interest in the older man. They find common ground in being Jewish, though Ross is only nominally so while Mr. Green is deeply religious. They're beginning to feel comfortable with each another when Mr. Green begins to needle Ross about not being married. And Ross stumbles upon inconsistencies in Mr. Green's claim to be childless.

In the soul-searching moments that follow, the men sort through family and social issues: children who don't grow up according to parents' plans, the value of tradition versus the benefit of rethinking old rules, and the absurdity of pushing love away if it doesn't conform to certain conditions.

Now and again, the show sledgehammers its issues, but for the most part it's a beautiful exercise in learning to live with -- and care for -- one another.

*

`Visiting Mr. Green'

Where: International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach

When: Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m.

Ends: Sept. 28

Price: $27-$35

Contact: (562) 436-4610

Running Time: 1 hour, 55 minutes

Jack Axelrod...Mr. Green

David Heymann...Ross Gardiner

Presented by International City Theatre. Written by Jeff Baron. Directed by caryn desai. Set Susan Gratch. Lights Debra Garcia Lockwood. Costumes Kim DeShazo. Sound Paul Fabre. Stage manager Michael Laun.

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