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Crash of Ideas 

by Michael Bowen

You could feel it in the final ovation. Just as people tend to pull for the title character in Visiting Mr. Green, they're also pulling for John Grant-Phillips, who plays Green in the current Interplayers production.

Those were some enormous changes in the final three days: just before opening night, the actor playing elderly Mr. Green was unable to go on. (Ed Cornachio survived his heart attack, happy to report, and is comfortably at home now. He would have been remarkable as the elderly Jewish widower, perhaps much as Eli Wallach evidently was in the original New York production four years ago.)

On just five days' notice, then, the Spokane Civic Theatre's Grant-Phillips (who's also known as "Jack") jumped into rehearsals. Grant-Phillips had only four previews to work with prior to opening night.

With all this as background, people go in rooting for the local guy to do well. Did he? A quick scorecard: Grant-Phillips is quite good as Mr. Green; his co-cast member, Patrick Braillard, is also effective in his role as a yuppie with a secret; Michael Weaver directs capably; and Jeff Baron's play is heartwarming (with all the connotations of that word attached). Despite the last-minute craziness, nearly everything about this trip to Mr. Green's house is just fine.

But just because Grant-Phillips came to the rescue and Baron conveys a heartwarming message doesn't automatically make this a four-star production. Some emotional notes are missed, and the paths of self-transformation traced by these two characters -- young and old, worldly and isolated -- seem too smooth. During Ross Gardiner's weekly visits to the Upper West Side apartment of old Mr. Green -- visits imposed by a judge, after Ross's car smacked down the frail old man -- these two have to face some uncomfortable truths. Self-transformations are duly achieved, but too often, in Baron's writing and this production's playing, the victories seem facile.

For example, Weaver has Mr. Green actually picking up the phone to make a fateful phone call, about 10 seconds after the character has been forced into an uncomfortable self-realization. Even Baron's script doesn't call for that, specifying instead that Mr. Green simply looks at a scribbled phone number and considers placing the call. At the age of 86, self-change (and, as Mr. Green notes, urination) doesn't come all that quickly.

If the characters' overall improvement is too rapid, some smaller moments are also off-key. For example, when the two men get to talking, and Ross pronounces the name of Yetta, Mr. Green's dead wife, he tries to recover, saying that he "didn't mean to be disrespectful." But Braillard doesn't register any regret in the moment; he's still playing the harried and resentful young executive who'd rather be doing lots of profitable things than mess with this old coot. When, on one visit, Ross rather predictably finds the old man slumped on the floor, it's to his credit that he takes immediate steps to ensure Mr. Green's well-being. But when he declares, in anger, "I am not gonna show up here and find you dead," the character is still more self-concerned than selfless; Braillard misses the mix of emotions.

Grant-Phillips inhabits his man. He shuffles about, arms held out stiffly, voicing his fears in Jewish intonations, suspicious of anything that upsets his stubborn ways. But he doesn't maximize our sense of just how deeply the old man is in denial.

That's been established by the end of the second scene: whenever Mr. Green receives upsetting news, he responds by... taking a nap. Yet by the Act One curtain line, the audience should see that Mr. Green's "I'm gonna lay down" carries more than a hint of rejection (of Ross) and blindness (about himself).

(Spoiler alert: If you don't want that curtain line and the play's other surprises ruined for you, then read no further.)

Braillard excels in the moments before his character is compelled into a revelation he'd rather not make. Grant-Phillips' Mr. Green takes in the confession, then runs for cover. Both actors could accomplish more in this sequence -- it's at the heart of the play's concern with prejudice -- but instead they play it more for laughs than for significance.

Still, just before Ross makes his uncomfortable admission, Braillard's face darkens with incisive, understated consternation. (Ross is gay; he has a difficult time saying so.) Braillard hits just the right note of reluctance and hesitation for the moment. Eventually, we see that Ross wants to fix Mr. Green's family because he wants so much to fix his own. Both characters need to exchange hatred -- of others, of self -- for compassion. Baron, moreover, has created an instructive balance in his play: The child who has faced rejection confronts a different kind of patriarch -- one who has meted out his own brand of hostility.

In Baron's play, Gardiner and Green attain self-change in ways that are a bit too neat. At Interplayers, by tinkering with a few episodes, Braillard and Grant-Phillips could rough up the sentimentality and complicate the lessons of Visiting Mr. Green.

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