Yet another international play to open at the National Centre for the Performing Arts this weekend, is the globally popular Visiting Mr Green, written and directed by novelist, playwright and screenwriter Jeff Baron. The 71-year-old theatre doyen M.K. Raina, in a rare instance of age-appropriate casting, plays the eponymous 86-year-old widower who is almost knocked down by a car driven by reckless yuppie Ross Gardiner (Aakash Prabhakar). The latter is sentenced to six months of weekly visits to Mr. Green. A comic clash of generations and sensibilities develops into a thought-provoking and dramatically potent two-hander, that might remind NCPA audiences of another cross-generational chamber piece — Mitch Albom's Tuesdays with Morrie, one of the venue’s forays into production.
Although Baron and his team have been rehearsing together for weeks now, the initial ‘table work’ for the play was carried out, rather inventively, over Skype, due to the principals living in New York, New Delhi and Mumbai. The play’s NYC setting remains unchanged in this production, but Baron feels that location is immaterial. “The play addresses what it is like to grow old, and how the world has changed from generation to generation,” says Baron. “This is really the same across cultures.” Likely to add some edge to the production is Gardiner being gay, something that doesn’t sit well with his cantankerous co-traveller on a journey that is as much about acceptance as it is about shared human values.
Return to form
The opening run featured the great character actor Eli Wallach in the titular role, with the New York Times describing his performance as “a tart slice of unsentimental acting [that is] lovely to behold”. The very decorated Raina, whose output in theatre as director-cum-activist has been prodigious, is perhaps known as an actor only from his sporadic parts on the big screen — from the smoulderingly disaffected young man of 27 Down (1974) to the septuagenarian rekindling the romance in his marriage in Teen Aur Aadha (2018). “Nobody in theatre was asking me to do a play, so I have rediscovered myself as a stage actor,” says Raina. According to him, the play was akin to “grinding on stones” and its swirling themes of faith and religion, or the humaneness of humanity, “touched him on many levels”. This was a rare play for him in which a playwright was directing his own work, and it got him to appreciate the craft and nuances of language in a much more focused manner. “It is like coming across a calligraphic curl or a precious paragraph, which led me to discover the little spaces that I could respond to immediately,” elaborates Raina.
The enterprising Prabhakar has, of course, been a strong presence in the fringe theatre scene in Mumbai during his tenureship as the creative director of The Castiko Space, which enjoyed a short-lived but impactful spell as an alternative arts venue. Apart from umpteen outings as a dependable actor, among Prabhakar’s directorial ventures have been the self-penned anthology Crumpled, a work that was aspirational both in theme and thrust, and Mike Bartlett’s Cock, refreshingly played out as a sitcom rather than a slice of existential angst. With regards to Visiting Mr Green he says, “We are trying to truthfully represent a story that is very close to Jeff’s personal experiences. Family strife, differences and disagreements are what all of us have to negotiate irrespective of where we are from.” Prabhakar’s talking about the play’s universal relatability. It is this accessibility that has led to middling reviews from upper-crust critics, but undeterred, Baron has scripted an unqualified and award-winning international success story, with the play boasting of more than 500 productions in 24 languages worldwide. As the publicity material points out, India is the mind-boggling fiftieth country on its enviable worldwide roster, with a Hindi version on the cards as well.
Visiting Mr Green premières on Friday, December 13 at Experimental Theatre, NCPA, Nariman Point with shows till Saturday, December 14. See bookmyshow