A two-person play is a difficult undertaking for all involved. Take Jeff Baron's Visiting Mr. Green, making its regional premiere at the New Jewish Theatre. It's the story of young corporate exec Ross Gardiner, who, after almost running down 86-year-old Mr. Green with his car, is sentenced to community service of weekly visits to the old man. It's Thursdays with Morrie. Baron's first act plays like a series of acting-class exercises, but fortunately there's more substance to the second act, in which Ross' admission of homosexuality becomes the catalyst for big questions about the fine line between unswerving faith and bigotry and the ways fear of change affect every family. The two actors have it tough, too. Once they're out there, the audience had better like them, 'cause nobody else is going to show up.
Fortunately, Steve Callahan as Mr. Green and Todd Schaefer as Ross are both appealing performers and, for the most part, carry the evening capably. When the plot finally kicks in in the second act and the actors are given something to work with, they make the most of it. They're at their best when they slow down and actually talk to each other. But most of their acting is right on the lines, and they either avoid or haven't been pushed by director Brad Schwartz to search for any nuance or subtext. In the climax, when the men finally embrace, it just doesn't feel like the characters have earned it emotionally.
Schwartz tells his story clearly and reins in what could have been excessive sentimentality. For a director, an acting duet becomes a challenge in finding variety in staging and tempo, and this is where Schwartz falters. With so much repeated business in the nine scenes -- door- knocking, carryout dining, cleaning -- why not vary it each time to show how the relationship grows through ritual?
The NJT space is intimate, to say the least; the overflow audience sits inches from the actors and the realistic set by Chris Anich. Kudos to the group for bringing new plays to St. Louis in a setting that quite literally transforms the audience into a community. And the community has obviously responded; the run has been sold out since before opening.