On Thursday night in the Maxine and Robert Seller Theatre in Getzville, the Jewish Repertory Theatre of Western New York celebrated the opening of its 15th season.
Since 2002, the company co-founded by Shakespeare in Delaware Park's Saul Elkin and David Bunis has pumped out a steady stream of quality productions. Smartly, it has adjusted its output to match its resources, producing at most three shows per season and allowing breathing room and rehearsal space between each play.
This season, JRT is returning to its roots by producing shows that speak to its history. The first is "Visiting Mr. Green," Jeff Baron's sentimental and sometimes moving story about a war of words and values between an elderly Jewish man (Elkin) and a young business executive (Nick Stevens) in New York City.
The company produced the show during its first season, and its selection can likely be attributed to nostalgia for the company's younger days rather than any literary merit. "Visiting Mr. Green," which contains an off-kilter combination of sitcom humor and confessional monologues, probably wouldn't make most people's top-10 list of JRT productions.
Even so, Steve Vaughan's production sustains a baseline of credibility and warmth that makes the production's two-hour running time fly by in what seems like the span of a "Golden Girls" episode.
The gravitational center of the play, of course, is Elkin. It's difficult to think of a performance when he has been as effortlessly funny as in this production, in which he turns the smallest shrug or quizzical look into a torrent of laughter.
Elkin's character, Mr. Green, has been cooped up in his messy New York City apartment by himself since the death of his beloved wife a few months past. In a plot point more suitable for "Seinfeld" than a serious contemporary drama, we learn that Mr. Green was nearly run down by a speeding car driven by a young corporate executive named Ross. As punishment for his reckless driving, Ross has been assigned to help Mr. Green once a week with anything he might need.
Does this seem unlikely? Just go with it.
True to the form of such intergenerational dramas, things go poorly at first. And this is where Elkin's comic powers shine through. He has no interest in Ross, trying every conceivable way to shuffle him out of his dingy apartment. But little by little, Ross infiltrates Mr. Green's life, bringing him kosher soup from his favorite deli, cleaning up the apartment and finally developing a rapport based on their shared faith.
As Vaughan alludes to in his program note, this is where the formula somewhat breaks down. Both men reveal secrets of deep significance to their lives, and the audience watches as they stumble toward the inevitable Hallmark resolution.
The trouble in Baron's script is balance. The first half of the play is light as air, a venue for jokes about the vagaries of growing old and the capriciousness of youth. The second act is heavy as an anvil, filled with over-extended monologues, mostly from Ross, that feel out of place. If Baron transferred some of the first act's levity to the second, and some of the second act's dramatic weight to the first, the shift would not seem so jarring.
As Ross, Nick Stevens does an excellent job portraying his character's internal conflicts and acts as a capable comic foil to Elkin's grumpy Mr. Green. But as well as he does, he can't seem to rescue the character from the melodramatic chamber in which Baron has entombed it.
All that being said, there remains great pleasure in watching these two gifted performers spar with one another onstage in a production so sensitively directed. The source material might not be up to snuff, but after 15 years, the company sure is.
2 1/2 stars out of four)
"Visiting Mr. Green" runs through Nov. 17 in the Maxine and Robert Seller Theatre, 2640 North Forest Road, Getzville. Tickets are $10 to $38. Call 650-7626 or visit jewishrepertorytheatre.com.