Featured Story

A world traveler is coming to the Shelter Island Library: Jeff Baron to speak about his award-winning play at the library tonight

It was late February 2020 and the word “pandemic” was nothing more than an historical concept to most Americans. Playwright and Islander Jeff Baron was about to direct his play, “Visiting Mr. Green,” in India.

But within a couple of weeks, COVID-19 descended on the world. Mr. Baron was about to discover, like many others, remote communications to direct the India production via Skype.

The play tells the story of an elderly widower, Mr. Green, who is almost struck by a vehicle driven by a younger man. A judge finds the driver guilty of reckless driving. The young man is sentenced to visit Mr. Green monthly for six months.

The relationship begins with humor and resentment on both sides, but transforms with the passage of time into a drama that critics agreed would stay with audiences long after the performances ended.

British actor Warren Mitchell, who won a coveted British theatre Olivier Award, called Mr. Green one of the three great roles for an actor along with King Lear and Willy Loman.

Today, Mr. Baron, who lives part-time in New York City, counts 52 countries, including Russia and the Ukraine, where his plays have been produced in various languages. In August, he will be speaking at the Shelter Island Library in a program titled “Around the World with Mr. Green,” arguably his most famous play, tonight at 7 p.m.

“The first day rehearsing a play is always an adventure, especially if the actors and director haven’t worked together before,” Mr. Baron wrote for a column in American Theatre about his efforts to mount the play in India.

The need to work remotely made the effort even more of an adventure. Add in cultural differences and pronunciations, which the two actors were unfamiliar with, and the work became more complex.

Mr. Baron said he could have changed the play to make his Jewish characters Muslim or Hindu, but he had already had the experience in 48 other countries of fighting to maintain the play in its original form, and was determined to make it work in India.

With time, he and the actors reached a point where they believed the play, as written, would work with Indian audiences.

Mr. Baron also had to work remotely with set designers and lighting experts and others as the production came together.

Looking back on the experience, he realized that many playwrights think theatre is limited to New York and London, but he’s come to mine a rich alternative by tapping the international market, which is hungry for first-class material.

That doesn’t mean the process was without its challenges. In Ukraine, he still hasn’t been paid. And in Russia where his “Mother’s Day” play is on stage in Siberia, banking sanctions may make it impossible for him to continue to get paid for the production.

He tried using an agent early on when he began licensing his work to theaters in other countries and ultimately decided, despite some difficulties, to handle his own negotiations. And, yes, he did consider trying to pull the play from Russia when President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine. Ultimately, even if he could have halted the production, he thought it would bring some humanity to the forefront.

“Visiting Mr. Green” premiered at the Berkshire Theatre Group in Stockbridge, Mass., in 1996 with Eli Wallach playing Mr. Green. When the play moved the following year to New York’s Union Square Theater, Mr. Wallach continued in the role.

Through the years, “Visiting Mr. Green” has brought Mr. Baron Best Play awards in Greece, Mexico, Israel, Uruguay, Turkey and Germany. It was also nominated for a Drama League Award in New York, among other honors.

Other plays filled his time, but in 2018, Mr. Baron followed with a sequel, “So This Is My Family — Mr. Green, Part 2,” which premiered at the Festival d’Avignon in France. Although written years later, the sequel was set three years after the original play, and it has two additional characters.

Islanders may know Mr. Baron best for his Sean Rosen books, novels about a 13-year-old boy’s adventures in Hollywood. Before he began writing plays, he was a television and film screenwriter and novelist.

He wrote and sold screenplays to Disney, David Brown and Marcia Nasatir. His television credits include “The Tracey Ullman Show,” “Sisters” and other prime time series, plus multiple projects for Nickelodeon. His award-winning film, “The Bruce Diet,” has been featured at festivals around the world.

His latest work, which he wrote, directed and hosted at Merkin Hall in New York City, is “Whatever It Is, I’m Against It — 100 Years of Funny Jewish Songs.”   

He was also commissioned by the Los Angeles Opera to write the libretto for an original one-act opera, “Escape,” and directed the world  premiere of his one-act opera, “Song of Martina,” at Carnegie Hall.

In addition to his writing, Mr. Baron has been Author-in-Residence at Ardsley Middle School in Westchester, working with the English faculty and mentoring 7th-grade students writing and performing their original short plays.