Legendary Theodore Bikel performs in Visiting Mr. Green at Toronto’s Jane Mallet Theatre
In my enthusiasm at the prospect of seeing Theodore Bikel onstage in Visiting Mr. Green, it’s possible that I may have gone on at length to my theatre-partner (and husband) about his myriad accomplishments: originating the role of Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music on Broadway, more than 2,000 performances in Fiddler on the Roof, television, films, folk music.
He’s a living treasure of theatre, with 68 years of performance in five languages under his belt. To the benefit of all, certainly including playwright Jeff Baron and costar Aidan deSalaiz, both of whom must understand how much they’ve been enriched by their association with Bikel in Visiting Mr. Green.
Told in successive vignettes of each week’s visit, Visiting Mr Green is a classic story – two people, in a circumstance neither one chose, grapple with and come to terms with one another over time. In this case, an elderly widower (Bikel) and Ross, the young executive who almost hit him with his car (deSalaiz), ordered by a judge to complete community service – by visiting Mr. Green (get it?) once a week for six months. Revelations ensue. Arguments follow revelations. And so on.
deSalaiz is both lucky and not to be starring opposite Bikel in this play. He’s in the shadow of greatness and he knows it. Like a chess or tennis player who finds himself competing above his paygrade, deSalaiz’s faults and strengths both are cast into relief in the matchup. With a lot of natural empathy and a real presentness in the tender emotional parts of the play, deSalaiz is a more than enough scene partner for Bikel when things get intense.
In the casual moments, though, he’s unfortunately a bit wooden; we get the sense that he’s just marking off the time until the good stuff comes. Still, better that than the other way around – he can probably learn to invest in the small transactions a lot more easily than he could learn to commit himself emotionally to his craft.
Bikel is hilariously “elderly” in this show, forgetful and slow, for someone who is indeed quite spry and certainly in possession of all his marbles (and several other people’s as well, I suspect). We really believe in it, though, until the curtain call, when he straightens up and fairly dances across the stage. It’s Bikel setting the pace with this piece – one imagines director Jen Shuber deciding to make a virtue of the inevitable and and just letting him do it. It works, though, in part because deSalaiz as Ross is visibly deferential to his elder at first, letting Bikel as Mr. Green dictate his own terms these visits.
Without revealing too much about the plot, I can say that a key point of the play revolves around Ross’ choice to come out as gay to Mr. Green, and the ripples that causes. The text is, in moments, a little uncomfortably didactic – you can feel it making its Very Important Point – and playwright Baron seems to have gone out of his way to create the most whitebread, watered-down gay character he could imagine, as though in this way he could be more appealing to straight audiences. It might work nicely for straight audiences, but I heard more than a few murmurs among the ‘mos in the audience the night I was there that Ross, as a character, feels more like a placeholder than a person. One imagines Baron writing this show for the other members of his grandparents’ synagogue.
Still, the show is worth seeing – for Bikel if nothing else, for a two-character show that feels like it has some leisure in it, and for the exquisite slump of deSalaiz’s shoulders when his character realizes that he’s carelessly tidied the last, carefully dried flowers Mr. Green brought to his wife Yetta, into the trash. Whatever the other flaws of the production, you could teach a whole day on a still frame of the two men’s postures in the moment, as true a tableaux of grief as I’ve ever seen on a stage.
– Shows run Saturday through Thursday at 8pm with matinees on Sunday and Wednesday at 2pm