Tuesday, February 28, 2012

THEATRE REVIEW: "Visiting Mr. Green" at North Coast REP

A Charming "Mr. Green"

North Coast Rep brings out the best in loveable, if lightweight, odd couple comedy

By Donnie Matsuda

Sometimes the most unexpected of circumstances can provide us with life’s greatest lessons.

Such is the case in Visiting Mr. Green, Jeff Baron’s heartwarming two man play currently being presented in a stellar staging by North Coast Rep.

Craig De Lorenzo and Robert Grossman in "Visiting Mr. Green" at North Coast Rep. Photo courtesy of Aaron Rumley.

While the premise of the play is admittedly a bit of a stretch, there is a lot to be found just under the surface of the inter-generational alliance that forms between cantankerous octogenarian Mr. Green and his most unlikely visitor: 29-year old financial executive Ross Gardiner. As we learn at the play’s outset, Ross has been charged with reckless driving for nearly running over Mr. Green and has been ordered by the court to perform community service by visiting Mr. Green once a week for six months. Despite their shared Jewish heritage, these two men couldn’t be more different and their failure to see eye-to-eye on just about everything gives the play a very argumentative feel in the first few scenes. But, as the weeks pass and the visits become more personal, both men begin to let their guards down and open up about the skeletons that have been hiding in their closets for years. The once hostile indifference that characterizes their relationship as strangers slowly morphs into a friendship based on shared trust and compassionate understanding.

Baron has quite a gift for writing engaging and naturalistic dialogue and his back-and-forth banter brings out the best (and the worst) in his Ross and Mr. Green, creating two very distinct, yet complementary characters. While his play harps on the same issues in ways that seem stale and dated by today’s standards (Ross coming to terms with his sexuality and the recently widowed Mr. Green coming to terms with the importance of his remaining family), there is just the right amount of personal tragedy and contemporary comedy to keep things interesting. And in the more than capable hands of the always professional North Coast Rep, Baron’s intriguing play is quite the charmer.

Craig De Lorenzo and Robert Grossman. Photo courtesy of Aaron Rumley.

Veteran character actor Robert Grossman is delightful and endearing as the curmudgeonly Mr. Green. With a shuffling gait, brazen, no-nonsense attitude, and a raspy voice, Grossman has the perfect sensibility to bring this staunchly stuck-in-his-ways, painfully practical, elderly Jewish man to life. Not one to waste a spoonful of matzo ball soup, Mr. Green is clearly a survivor who has endured life’s brutal tragedies by sticking firmly to his orthodox Jewish beliefs and ignoring everything else. In this complex but verbally uncommunicative role, Grossman delves deeply into Mr. Green’s dense psyche to convey a wide range of intricate and interrelated emotions – anger, repressed guilt, bitter resentment, lost abandon, and ever-increasing senility.

Craig De Lorenzo is a refreshing contrast to Grossman’s crusty, old-fashioned Mr. Green. Full of bright-eyed optimism and fast-talking exuberance, De Lorenzo initially comes across as a well-groomed, well-grounded twenty-something who has little to offer but a slick quip and a wink of the eye. But the genius of De Lorenzo’s performance is in how he gradually peels away the outer layers of his character to reveal the damaged and dejected lost soul that lies underneath it all. His fully realized, completely exposed emotional eruptions in the second act are wholly felt and incredibly affecting.

Christopher M. Williams (in his full directorial debut at NCR) does a splendid job of keeping the back and forth banter well-balanced and the biting comedy fresh and wholesome. His dynamic actors play off each other seamlessly and none of the scenes feel forced or out of place. Williams takes his time to extract some incredibly genuine performances from his two man cast, and these performances mange to deepen and unfold quite naturally over the course of the play’s two hours. He also makes good use of all the rooms of Marty Burnett’s compact upper West Side Manhattan apartment set, which works well with Matt Novotny’s concise lighting design and Renetta Lloyd’s contemporary costumes.

Craig De Lorenzo and Robert Grossman. Photo courtesy of Aaron Rumley.

If you can overlook the prefabricated premise and the return to the same tired themes over and over again, there is a lot of heart and humor to be found in North Coast Rep’s charismatic revival.

And, with a dynamic acting duo and some formidable one-liners, I’d say Mr. Green is well worth a visit.

Things to know before you go: Visiting Mr. Green plays at North Coast Rep (987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Suite D, Solana Beach, CA 92075) through March 11, 2012. Running time is 2 hours with a 15 minute intermission. Performances are Wednesdays at 7pm, Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2pm and Sunday evenings at 7pm. Tickets are $32-$49 with discounts available for students and military. For more information or to purchase tickets, call (858) 481-1055 or visit www.northcoastrep.org.

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