Something for Everyone?

JCC stages a play desperate to be loved by all.

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Visiting Mr. Green Halle Theatre, Mayfield Jewish Community Center, 3505 Mayfield Road, Cleveland Heights Through February 18

216-382-4000, ext. 2

Plated Silver: Mr. Green's leads suit themselves to a - tea.
Plated Silver: Mr. Green's leads suit themselves to a tea.
Visiting Mr. Green, a first play by failed screenplay writer Jeff Baron, is beginning to hold the country's community theaters hostage. It's small and cheap to produce, and it gives audiences what they want: a far-from-intellectual evening. The equivalent of a McDonald's Happy Meal, it offers a satisfying junk-food rush.

Just as those who crave sweets tear open a box of Cracker Jack to be rewarded with a plethora of cavity-causing caramel corn, so theatergoers who choose this play expect a good helping of kosher schmaltz (chicken fat, for the uninitiated). And this play, now at the Mayfield Jewish Community Center's Halle Theatre, delivers by the bucketful.

To repeat an old Yiddish saying, playwright Baron is "plenty shmart [sic] for himself." His is a paint-by-numbers approach. He takes an 86-year-old, recently widowed Jewish patriarch (Reuben Silver) and gives him a bit of wry Tevye wit and a soupçon of Willie Loman pathos. In an implausible plot manipulation that would shame Dickens, a late-twentysomething secular Jewish yuppie (Scott Plate) almost runs down the old geezer and is consequently sentenced by a crafty judge to play weekly nurse, nanny, and therapist to the eponymous Mr. Green.

The first act consists of a 40-minute getting-acquainted empathy dance. As the old man is fed kosher chicken soup and starts to come out of his disorienting grief, the playwright plants cryptic little puzzles: Why does the old man, happily wedded for 59 years, supposedly have no offspring? How come the comely young boychik knows so much about housework? Where's the young man's girlfriend? Five minutes to intermission, Baron unpacks revelations that are supposed to stun the audience. Mr. Green does have a daughter, whom he rejected 30 years earlier for marrying a goy. The young caretaker shockingly reveals he's a homosexual -- or, in Jewish parlance, a "faygala!"

It's during intermission that the more enlightened audience members come to the conclusion that they have lost their hearts to endearing kitsch and that their heads are spinning with comforting platitudes. Ultimately, they learn that "every cloud has a silver lining" and "when you walk through a storm, hold your head up high." In other words, if your beloved wife meets her maker, you'll be reunited with the daughter you rejected, or, if your homophobic father rejects and humiliates you, it's only because you're so devastatingly handsome and sensitive. Here is a play so shrewdly manipulative, it makes the Neil Simon canon take on the existential bleakness of Beckett. It has the perfect symmetry of a Swiss cuckoo clock: Every five minutes, there's a guaranteed guffaw, sniffle, or murmur-eliciting moment of recognition.

This is a work that schizophrenically hovers between conservatism and liberalism, endorsing Old Testament family ways above all. Yet, at the same time, it champions gay self-acceptance and tolerance of interfaith marriage. Without the emotional weight of its cast, the whole enterprise would curl up like an unfurled pop star poster.

With any other two performers, it would take the adoration of devoted relatives to keep the awe pumping. Silver and Plate return to the prototypical roles that made their reputations -- the alternately cranky and avuncular Yiddish grandfather and the tender-hearted, high-strung lover of boys. Playing off each other with the synchronicity of old-time vaudevillians, they radiate a nostalgia redolent of old radio broadcasts and kinescopes. Silver shuffles poignantly, exuding a ruined grandeur like King Lear playing the Catskills, while Plate suffers with Byronic nobility. They bring to mind those rare moments of glory when two generations of revered performers team up in a blaze of showmanship, like when the great Al Jolson used up his last ounce of bravado to sing "Mammy," followed by a young Bing Crosby melting the bobby-soxers with "Moonlight Becomes You."

Director Dorothy Silver, who has cohabited with the elder lead since 1949, moves him around designer Tony E. Kovacic's evocative, dilapidated New York apartment set with the savvy of a champion chess player. Every detail, from the whistling tea kettle to piles of ancient phone books, has been fine-tuned to disguise this Happy Meal as authentic kosher haute cuisine.

Trying to create the illusion that Visiting Mr. Green is attached to the real world, the Jewish Community Center is sponsoring, in conjunction with the run, Life's Greatest Lessons: A Symposium on Aging. To drive home the urgency of Jews marrying Jews (deviant sexuality be damned), the Jewish News is featuring the latest sensation from Los Angeles: Speed Dating, where 20 men and 20 women frantically size each other up in seven-minute dates, hunting for the perfect spouse. Who says life doesn't imitate art?

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