Eight years after he first played the lonely old widower in Jeff Baron’s Visiting Mr Green at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Warren Mitchell revisits the role in London in a new production by Patrick Garland. The actor has grown much frailer (he is now 82), but still has a few years on Mr Green himself, who is eighty-six.
I don’t much like the play, which is over-schematic and over-sentimental, but there is a growing bond between the old man and his visitor that makes room for both a meeting of minds and a revelation of tragedy. And Mitchell himself, a doddery husk of the actor whose vigour and flintiness were hallmarks of both his great Willy Loman and his tetchy King Lear, gives a master class in geriatric slyness and emotional manipulation.
The American playwright reveals in a programme note that the encounter is loosely based on a portrait of his own relationship with his grandmother, although I do hope he didn’t try to run her over. Mr Green has been slightly injured in a car accident and the culprit, Ross Gardiner (Gideon Turner), ordered by the courts to visit his “victim” in a spirit of community service.
These “same time next week” episodes are similar to the annual repeat visits in Bernard Slade’s comedy Same Time Next Year without the romance and, alas, the jokes. There are nine short scenes, and the curtain lines vary, but “Are you Jewish?”; “Who said I wasn’t?” is unlikely to grace too many anthologies, any more than the limp and slightly old hat discussion about homosexuality will shake up the gay play repertoire.
Ross is an American Express middle-management executive and, no, he doesn’t drive a train. These mild misunderstandings are rooted in something deeper, the cultural divide between the New York Jewish immigrant community and the go-getting Manhattan commercial crowd.
Mr Green’s Upper West Side apartment, designed by Sean Cavanagh, is a tribute to domestic disorganisation and tattered survival, with its frayed furniture and empty fridge. Ross brings tidiness, Ross brings food. Soon, in their shared confessions, Ross may bring a whole lot more, and the play defies its own corniness by convincing you of its hard won poignancy.
Turner’s Ross brings off the difficult feat of animating a starched business suit. Mitchell, shuffling along on a stick in white plimsolls, does the best alarmingly decrepit cross-stage walk I’ve ever seen, and those moments when his eyes suddenly blaze through a miasma of memory and sadness are just about worth staying awake for.