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Poignant tale opens doors
Arizona Daily Star; Tucson, Ariz.; Mar 15, 2002; Kathleen Allen;

Theater key to writer's satisfaction

Jeff Baron had had it with Hollywood.

"I wrote four screenplays that got bought but never made," said Baron, the author of "Visiting Mr. Green," which Invisible Theatre opens next week.

"And I was writing for TV. What I wrote was reaching the public, but every other word was changed. . . . If you think of yourself as an artist and have something to say, that's not very satisfying."

Baron, speaking from his New York City home, remembers the day in the mid-1990s when he sat down and decided to take a different tack.

"Every year or so, I would put aside time to write a long piece. I couldn't bring myself to write another screenplay that wouldn't see the light of day."

But a play might, he reasoned.

Especially a story that had been rattling around in his head for eight years. It's about a young man, Ross, who almost plowed down an elderly, cantankerous man, Mr. Green, and has been charged with reckless driving. Ross' community service sentence is to visit widower Green, shop for him and help him get along.

The comedy-laced drama follows the two men as they fight, accept, and learn about and from each other.

It opened off-Broadway in 1997, with veteran actor Eli Wallach in the lead.

Mr. Green, said Baron, is fashioned after his grandmother, who helped raise him. As she got older, Baron made regular visits to her home to help her out.

Ross, an American Express up-and-comer, was fashioned after Baron, once a one-time American Express up-and-comer.

"It's about an old Jewish guy and a young corporate guy," Baron said of the script. "They end up playing out a lot of unfinished business each has with his family. . . . They've both been keeping a lot inside, and in the course of the visits, it all explodes."

An eight-year gestation period isn't surprising when you consider Baron's methods.

He constantly gathers germs of ideas and files them away. "Visiting Mr. Green" began to take shape when he realized he had enough solid ideas to write a play. He started to do research.

He interviewed all his relatives over 60, visited an old-age home and spent hours researching at New York's Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

Then he started to talk to the play's characters.

"As I do interviews with them," he said, "I get to start hearing their voices when they answer the questions. . . . As I'm hearing these conversations, I'm transcribing them. The speed at which I write matches pretty closely the speed of the conversations."

Which brings up another reason why Baron's work took so long: He would much rather hold a pencil than stroke a keyboard.

"I'm one of the few full-time writers that still writes by hand," explained the 40-something Baron, who blames his age for his old- fashioned way.

"If I were 20 or 30 years younger, I would have grown up with the computer" and been comfortable with it, he said.

When the play premiered at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in 1996, with Wallach in the lead, Baron realized he had something there.

"It was a relief, really, that it worked," he said. "Though, to be honest, it didn't surprise me that people responded to it. If I didn't believe that they would, I wouldn't have devoted so much time to it."


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