Belgrade: Svetogorska Street is crowded tonight. Across from the Karenjim clothing store and a small food kiosk, scores of Serbians, some in jeans, some in business suits and dresses, walk up a wide set of stairs, through the front door, and file down a narrow staircase to a room where an old Jewish man, a black kipa atop his head, sits on a ratty, overstuffed chair.
Soon there is a knock at the door.
And another night of "Visiting Mr. Green," something of a Jewish cultural phenomenon in a land where there are few Jews, is under way.
In the Atelje 212 playhouse near the center of the capital, on a simple set decorated with a cobweb-covered sofa and Singer sewing machine (a Singeritsa in Serbian), Predrag Ejdus, one of the country’s leading actors, portrays the title character, a bracha-reciting, sometimes-streimel-wearing, 86-year-old cranky retiree identified only as Mr. Green. Srdan Timarov, a rising television star, plays the role of Ross Gardiner, a secular Jew, 29, an American Express executive who comes to Green’s apartment once a week to do chores as his court-imposed community service after injuring the octogenarian in a recent auto accident.
Green and Gardiner share kosher meals, debate Jewish values, yell at each other about mutual acceptance and grow to respect each other in nine scenes separated by recorded klezmer music.
While the two-man play has become a theatrical hit since it opened in the fall, and Green and Gardiner may be the best-known Jews in the country, the crowds come because the play, in their eyes, is about ethnic relations in their homeland (the newly formed country of Serbia and Montenegro is the political center of the former Yugoslavia) and not about a pair of New York Jews.
Tonight nearly all the hall’s 150 seats are filled: with non-Jewish residents of Serbia.
Written by New Yorker Jeff Baron, the production is performed to usually capacity audiences despite its unfamiliar setting (the Upper West Side of Manhattan), its ticket prices ($8 to $10, expensive in a country with a struggling economy), its primary theme of intermarriage (Mr. Green’s daughter) and its secondary theme of homosexuality (Gardiner’s).
In this land of 10 million people, where 65 percent of the residents are members of the conservative Serbian Orthodox Church; where only some 3,000 Jews quietly live; where Jewish concerns about assimilation are largely unknown; where the actors’ Jewish expressions are so foreign that terms like Shabbos and bar mitzvah require defining in a glossary that accompanies each program; and where the issue of homosexual rights earns little support, "U Poseti Kod Gospodina Grina," as the play is called in Serbian, has become a symbol throughout the now-independent Yugoslavian republics, a Slavic combination of "Fiddler on the Roof" and "Tuesdays with Morrie."
But is it too Jewish?
"I never heard that," says director Stefan Sablic, who translated Baron’s script.
Instead, says Sablic, who is also a chazan in the Belgrade synagogue and an oud player in the city’s Shira Utfila Jewish musical group, "Visiting Mr. Green" first breaks stereotypes of Jews, then transcends its narrow ethnicity. After 20 minutes, theatergoers tell him, they forget the protagonists are Jews: they see Serbs, Croats, Bosnians; they see Orthodox Christians, Catholics, Muslims; they see the main groups in the former Yugoslavia, which suffered a civil war and ethnic cleansing and racial hatred and international isolation during the past decade.
They see the play, Sablic says, as representative of the family fights that ensue when Serbian marries Croat who marries Bosnian who …
"Visiting Mr. Green" is part of the healing process. With a small advertising budget, its fame has spread by word of mouth.
"It’s one of the most popular plays in our society," Sablic says. "You can’t find tickets three days before, which is unusual.
"The subject of the play is hotter than in New York City," where the play had a brief run, starring Eli Wallach, after its 1997 premiere at the Union Square Theatre, Sablic says. "It’s talking about minorities. There are a lot of minorities here."
Such groups as Turks and Gypsies are frequent targets of skinheads and right-wing nationalists, and the drama plays a role in a national conversation about discrimination.
"People in Belgrade are very well educated. People are interested in everything," especially cultural presentations that allude to their own situation, says Mirko Levi, president of the Belgrade Jewish community. He points out that past Jewish plays, like "The Dybbuk," have been successful here.
Produced originally at a Jewish cultural festival last year in Croatia with financial backing from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, "Visiting Mr. Green" has been staged subsequently in Sarajevo, in small towns around Serbia, and in Zurich for an audience of Serbian emigres.
"The play is reaching different parts of society," Sablic says.
Now Ejdus and Timarov, both of whom coincidentally are Jewish, take the stage four or five times a month in Belgrade, a frequency of production that marks it as a success in a theater scene where most plays are presented once or twice a month.
"Visiting Mr. Green" draws a youngish crowd that laughs at the right places and calls the performers back for repeated curtain calls.
"Everyone understands the characters," Sablic says. "Everyone says it reminds them of their parents."
"I don’t think about it as Jewish," says Andrea Vidovic, a dental student sitting in the theater’s coffeehouse after a recent performance. "It could be anyone’s religion." Her family is Serbian Orthodox and Catholic. "My uncle is Jewish. My cousins are Jewish."
"It’s about life. It’s about relationships," says Vidovic’s friend Dubravka Protica, who is Serbian Orthodox.
"As soon as I read the script, I felt attracted. I saw big potential," says Sablic, who discovered the play on the Internet two years ago, got a copy of the script from a friend in New York, wrote the Serbian translation on his computer in three weeks, and arranged its financing and the playhouse.
"I didn’t think it would be so much of a success," he admits. The actors’ notoriety helped initially, he says. Then it opened on the road and became popular in Belgrade.
Other versions have played in South Africa and Germany, which have had their own problems with minority relations.
The semi-autobiographical play (Harvard graduate Baron, who is homosexual, became a playwright and screenplay writer after a successful career in marketing and general management) "has proven to be universal," Baron writes in an author’s note in the script.
Belgrade’s "Visiting Mr. Green" is booked through September. And Sablic, who has directed four previous plays here, predicts this one’s popularity won’t end this year. "I think it will play at least two more seasons."