Mr. Green Visits the Ensemble Theatre Company
by Charles Donelan
It’s never easy admitting you are wrong, especially to a stranger. In Jeff Baron’s play Visiting Mr. Green, an ambitious young New Yorker named Ross Gardiner hits an elderly Jewish pedestrian with his luxury car and as punishment, the court orders him to do community service by “visiting Mr. Green” — the widower he smacked. Ensemble Theatre Company’s upcoming production of the show features two veteran actors, Ben Hammer (as Mr. Green) and Aaron Serotsky (as Ross), who will be reprising their roles under the direction of Ensemble’s Jonathan Fox. The team has put on Mr. Green all over the place, including Frankfurt, Germany. Friday’s opening night promises to be an exciting one, as it marks the area debut not only of these actors and this play, but also of Fox, who took over the role of executive artistic director at Ensemble in August of this year.
Hammer and Serotsky were in the lovely side garden next to the Alhecama Theatre talking about the show when I caught up with them last week. Without giving away any of the play’s surprises, they each offered insight into what to expect from Visiting Mr. Green. In response to an opening question about what it is like to come back to the show, Hammer said, “I am doomed forever to play Mr. Green, like James O’Neill in The Count of Monte Cristo,” referring to the famous Irish actor (and father of playwright Eugene O’Neill) who performed the title role in that show more than 4,000 times. A twinkle in Hammer’s eye immediately told me that he was kidding, and, after another remark or two about the relative benefits of staying with a part, he began to address the question in earnest, offering, “There are always new values, new insights — something that comes out of the new flowers that open when you return to a strong piece. You can’t predict what new meanings will emanate, but you can be sure they will … at least until it runs dry, and then you don’t do it anymore!”
Hammer continued by gesturing to Serotsky and assuring me that he was the real source of new inspiration every time they reunite to do the show again. Serotsky was suitably bashful, and in turn praised writer Jeff Baron for his continued dedication to the work. According to Serotsky, the play “has revelations throughout because Jeff has constructed it so smartly, and he still makes changes to it even today, 10 years after writing it, when he feels there is something he can improve.”
I asked the actors about the play’s reception, and they agreed it has been an audience favorite everywhere, including Germany, where they received multiple curtain calls from a rapt crowd in the English Theatre Frankfurt. Hammer said the play’s appeal lies in its universality. “Wherever we do it, people seem to respond. It’s fantastic. Everything we go through in the play, every experience we have to deal with, has happened to each member of the audience in some way. The play just wallops them so that when they feel the heat and stress and anxiety of the story and let it affect them, it seems like they have to give up a little bit on some long-held beliefs and let in some new light. For them just to give an inch in that way is very powerful.”
The play covers some potentially divisive issues, all the way from Jewish identity in the aftermath of the Holocaust to the perceived hypocrisy of closeted gay men who succeed in conventionally straight social roles. At one point, Mr. Green makes Ross understandably uncomfortable with the provocative accusation, “You are finishing the job for Hitler.” According to the actors, this line has played in radically different ways to different audiences. Serotsky said that “what was comical in New Jersey was devastating and deadly serious in Frankfurt. You should have seen the faces on those Germans when that line went over. They were really feeling it. The subject of Hitler’s legacy is still very much alive over there.”