The casting of Hal Linden in the Off-Broadway comedy Visiting Mr. Green must have seemed like kismet to the play's author Jeff Baron. After all, Baron was raised in Linden, New Jersey, the town from which the "Barney Miller" actor took his name.
As Baron tells the story, the young Hal Lipshitz was passing through Linden on his way back from a jazz gig. The sax player had been contemplating a name change. Suddenly, he passed a fuel tank with the work "Linden" emblazoned across it in huge letters. The future Tony winner liked the look of the name--as well as its size--and adopted it.
Linden is the play's second Mr. Green, after Eli Wallach, and Baron has enjoyed both performances. "They really are different," Baron told Playbill On-Line. "As men and actors, their personalities are very different. Their performances reflect who they are as people. Hal is an angrier Mr. Green, in certain respects. Different parts of the play are illuminated by the two actors."
Baron is pleased, and somewhat surprised, with the success of his first play, now in its ninth month at the Union Square Theatre. He first found success as a screenwriter and wrote Green partly in response to his frustration with the film and television industries.
Not that he hasn't had success as a screenwriter. After leaving the corporate world, Harvard graduate Baron wrote four original screenplays and quickly sold them all to heavy hitters such as Disney. To date, though, not one of the scripts has reached the screen. For television, he has sold episodes to programs including "A Year in the Life," "The Tracey Ullman Show," and "Sisters," though often the teleplay he submitted did not resemble the episode which bore his name.
Trying his hand at playwriting seemed only natural, given his New York base. "I see many more plays than I see television shows," he said. "What I write seemed to fit the stage." Green had an initial reading in November 1994. In attendance was a producer who knew Eli Wallach and offered to show the veteran actor the piece. Wallach, apparently coming off a bad experience, vowed he would never do another play in his life. After an enthusiastic response to a second reading, however, he changed his mind.
Baron now often pays a call on the Union Square theatre to take in a performance. "After ten years in the movie business, where the writer is the necessary evil--it's a bruising kind of existence--the idea of being in a room with hundreds of people who are connecting with your work is thrilling. It makes you want to do it more."
And so he is. Baron is busy working on his second stage play, titled Mother's Day. The comedy-drama was inspired by his mother's recent illness and concerns a family gathering and the unspoken conflicts the occasion inspires.
As for Green, a production recently opened in Germany and others are planned for Israel, South Africa, Holland, Belgium and London.
"I guess family themes are universal," observed Baron.
--By Robert Simonson