There's a wonderful skit in one of the Monty Python episodes called "The Argument Council," or something of the sort. A man enters a government office, sits down and begins to speak. The bureaucrat on the other side of the desk immediately and invariably contradicts everything the man says.
Finally, in exasperation the man explodes, "This is ridiculous, you contradict everything I say."
"No, I don't," responds the bureaucrat, with a triumphant smile.
Had Mr. Green, the solitary old Jewish widower from Visiting Mr. Green, walked into the Argument Council office, I have not doubt he would have gotten the last word. Mr. Green is the immovable rock of contradiction. And yet, we know, don't we, from the very first, that a warm human heart is beating underneath that prickly exterior. Furthermore, we know that Ross Gardiner, the exasperated young man who has been assigned to visit Mr. Green as punishment for reckless driving, is just the reluctant angel to effect a life-affirming transformation. The inauspicious beginning of their relationship merely confirms our expectations.
Well, to be fair, the Athenians knew who Oedipus was sleeping with before the first line was spoken. And that didn't lessen their enjoyment of the play. In somewhat the same spirit, if on an infinitely more modest scale, Visiting Mr. Green, smoothly directed by Keith Briggs, and flawlessly performed by Roy Dumont and Michael Simpson, entertains us, amuses us and moves us -- without departing from its anticipated trajectory.
Roy Dumont, as every local theater-goer knows, has the market cornered in warm-hearted curmudgeons. He's not so bad as not-so-warm-hearted curmudgeons as well, for that matter (a glorious, archaic and incorrect species that has for sometime been on the endangered list). His predominance in the field is simple to explain: He's so damn good at it. He has, in fact, educated our palates. We can distinguish different varieties of surliness and appreciate the subtle bouquet of hidden sorrow that lingers over an ill-humored wisecrack. In that vein, I would say Dumont's Mr. Green is a truly memorable vintage. He is ornery, funny, touching and, best of all, never overdone. Dumont even carries off a brief "mad scene," which has a strong odor of theatrical convention about it, with a disarming naturalness. As an elderly -- and I take it, Jewish -- lady at the next table whispered to me: "This is very ethnic, many people may not realize, but it's very true." It was obvious she had known a few Mr. Greens of her own.
Very ethnic, it is, indeed. Green "keeps Kosher," with not merely two, but four sets of dishes (one for meat, one for milk, one for meat during Passover, one for milk during Passover). He speaks in Yiddish-flavored English: "My Yetta made a soup! That was a soup! And chicken! It fell off the bone, her chicken!" He is hostile to Ross, the young American Express executive assigned to help him, until he learns Ross is Jewish.
Things go much better for a while, until he learns Ross is also a "faygala." Their tentative friendship is nipped in the bud. Green is disgusted, horrified. To be gay is against what God wants!
Can Ross persuade the old man that the persecution of the Jews is not so different from the persecution of the gays? More importantly, can these two unhappy souls comfort and strengthen each other? Green needs Ross to reconnect him to life, a life grown empty and dreary since his wife's death. Ross needs Green to accept him, as he is -- to counterbalance and negate the cruel rejection he's suffered at the hands of his real father.
Simpson gives us a subtle, charming and believable Ross. He has just the right ambivalent "could be straight, could be gay" vibe. He is wearing the protective coloration of a pervasive mass delusion: normalcy. And he feels the strain. His care-taking impulses are rooted poignantly in a need to be loved.
Because these two talented actors -- while living up to the humor of the surface -- convey the deeper levels with simplicity and conviction, the play rises above its somewhat familiar agenda.
A further tip of the hat must be offered to director Briggs, who also designed the set. This is the first time I've seen a large, elaborately detailed stage set at le chat noir that seems comfortably adapted to the space and functions gracefully. This production proves that even full-blown naturalism can work in the versatile cabaret, if the proper care is taken. Su Gonczy's lighting and Jason Knobloch's sound were spot on as usual.
Visiting Mr. Green is a deft little show, done to a "t"; a well-crafted duet that will appeal to lovers of what used to be called "the legitimate stage."
- Ross Gardiner (Michael Simpson) tries to get through to the curmudgeonly Mr. Green (Roy Dumont) in Visiting Mr. Green at le chat noir.