If you go to Sacramento Theatre Company’s “Visiting Mr. Green” and feel like you’ve seen it before, you’re probably remembering other recent plays there.
In the current production, a young man, Ryan Blanning’s stiff Ross Gardiner, regularly visits the Upper West Side apartment of Gary S. Martinez’s cranky disaffected Mr. Green. The two have been uneasily thrown together because of a traffic mishap. Gardiner’s reckless driving conviction has resulted in a community service assignment that requires him to drop in on the isolated, shut-in widower once a week. There’s light comedy when they don’t much hit it off, but you know eventually they will, and life lessons will be learned.
In that way, it’s a kind of like a reverse “Tuesdays With Morrie,” which played the STC’s Pollock Theatre in 2010. That play features young, successful, soulless sportswriter Mitch Albom learning lessons about acceptance and the small joys of life from his dying former professor. But in “Green,” it’s mostly the young man who teaches the curmudgeonly elder a few things.
You also might remember “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks,” which played the same space in 2011, and featured a young dance instructor who was hired by an older woman for instruction in her home. They, too, comically clash at first, but even though she’s a Baptist minister’s widow and he’s a gay man, a deep bond develops by the end. There’s some laughter, as well as a few tears, depending on your sensitivity, and yes, life lessons are learned here too.
Set in the mid-’90s, “Green” relies on some of the same beats, and if that sounds rather formulaic, it is, but that’s not criminal. Under the forthright direction of Marie Bain, the intimate production chugs along, squeezing out a modicum of charm and familiar laughs through the experienced talent of Martinez, who brings the doddering and easily irritated Green to distinctive life. Playwright Jeff Baron’s lack of creativity isn’t a deal breaker yet, but it’s coming.
Young Gardiner, who’s moving up the American Express corporate ladder in New York City, doesn’t want to find a nice girl and settle down because, it turns out, he’s gay. That doesn’t sit well with Green’s strictly observant Jewish sensibility, and when their slowly developing friendship hits a roadblock, so does the play.
The Gardiner family doesn’t accept Ross’ sexuality, and while he and Green are batting that one around, we find out Green has disowned his daughter for marrying outside the faith and he hasn’t spoken to her in more than 20 years. It’s a double whammy of weighty narrative contrivance and no one’s happy, especially the audience, which has to sit through the remaining maudlin melodrama.
What might have passed for a hot-button issue in 1996 (i.e., coming out) doesn’t have the same charge or cachet in 2014, at least as written by playwright Baron. And even though there are insular cultural and religious communities today, Green seems to be living in 1896 rather 1996, and his intransigence often feels false and labored.
The veteran Martinez makes the most of Green’s growling temperament with the better-written role, while the game Blanning feels constricted as the more superficial Gardiner. Director Bain gets what she can from the script before it’s too late.
Call The Bee’s Marcus Crowder, (916) 321-1120. Follow him on Twitter @marcuscrowder.