by Sergei Burbank · May 1, 2015
Chita Rivera, Roger Rees | Joan Marcus
The hero dies. That’s not a spoiler, because the magic of The Visit is not dependent on suspense. (You came, after all, because you knew Chita Rivera was going to arrive. Leave feigned surprise for the craven mob onstage.) The hero dies, because we all do; people get old, they marry the wrong people, they make selfish, stupid mistakes, and whatever lip service we pay to ideals and principles, we are all slaves to our baser appetites -- in youth, it is the bodies and devotion of others, while in old age, it’s the warmth of a nice coat and comfortable shoes. The Visit is two things at once: an at times atonal musical set in a small town in post-war Europe with all the trappings of Brecht, and at other times a zany American musical that trumpets the triumph of love over all. It is a confounding, elusive, assertive work, and your willingness to accept this inherent tension will determine whether you enjoy the ride.
What makes the show work so well is how bewilderingly weird its very existence is. The original 1956 play, by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, is gleefully (and for him, characteristically) grotesque. It employs a chorus and group recitation, so the application of music is quite in keeping with the spirit of the original. But it injects pathos and humanity where Dürrenmatt saw no use for it. While Rivera’s Zachanassian is still haunted by the past, and driven by love (of a kind), in the original the heroine (a problematic term of use if ever there was one) shows no such sentiment. It is a testament to McNally, Kander, and Ebb that the plot’s awful events -- a small town lynches a lifelong resident in order to afford new clothes -- nevertheless feel triumphant in their deployment.
The play opens as the townspeople of Brachen await the return of Claire Zachanassian (Rivera), the world’s wealthiest woman. They are bankrupt, and while Zachanassian has not been back since her departure decades before, she is (they insist repeatedly, desperately) “one of us” -- and a mere piece of her eye-watering wealth is the the only thing that can save the town from oblivion. Rivera’s steady-eyed Zachanassian is no one’s fool: she knows full well why the townspeople’s luminaries (including its Mayor [Garrison], Schoolmaster [Danieley], and Doctor [Shew]) bow and scrape -- in fact, she’s counting on it. While Zachanassian’s resolve seems to waver when reunited with Anton Schell (Rees), the love of her youth, she nevertheless resolutely sets her terms -- I will deliver the town from ruin on one condition: that Schell dies.
Scott Pask’s set design places us in a wrecked train station, and it’s evident that times are indeed desperate. It is a gargantuan ruin: dead vines envelop shattered stone columns, and often haunting light pours through the shattered skylights overhead. Every square inch of the piece is an exploration of faded glory, and trains -- which bookend the plot -- serve as more than mere anachronisms from last century (in which the play is nebulously set). The train is an ineluctable force: its progress is at first slow, but as it gains speed its mass creates an irresistible inertia. In response to the shocked silence and sputtered refusal of the Brachen’s Mayor (who did require a prompt from the Schoolmaster to refuse), Zachanassian offers a cool “I’ll wait” -- and wait she does. Her offer, with its promised riches, barrels down on the townspeople (and, more specifically, Anton) like a runaway locomotive. The conclusion of the plot is as inevitable as a hundred tons of steel, as inevitable as human greed.
The source of Zachanassian’s bloodlust is incidental -- any musical playing between 40th and 55th Streets is selling some variant of tortured or wronged young love -- and the piece rightly condenses its revelation into a single whirlwind number. There is no suspense here, and the townspeople’s protestations of ignorance as to the true circumstances under which Zachanassian initially fled Brachen are highly suspect. (After all, wasn’t it the Mayor himself who ushers Anton to the back of the crowd welcoming Zachanassian home?) While we are anchored by the regality of Rivera’s and Rees’ performances, The Visit is about the morals of the mob. The drab townspeople (dressed in funereal squalor by Ann Hould-Ward) could be mistaken for newly-risen cadavers: J. Jared Janas’ make-up designs accentuate every craggy line -- but instead of craving brains, these zombies desire yellow shoes and gin. (It’s a good thing only Clare and Anton can see the ghosts of their younger selves, played with lustful grace by Michelle Veintimilla and John Riddle -- they would be devoured for their vitality.)
The dissolution seeps from the set, through the costumes, into the performers. The music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb, expertly crafted and pleasing to the ear, do not demand much of the leads -- and wisely so. The only required precision is placed in the hands of countertenors Matthew Deming and Chris Newcomer, playing eunuchs in Zachanassian’s employ, and they do not disappoint (the group’s “I Would Never Leave You” is as close to a traditional musical setpiece as one gets in this show, and was gleefully received in the performance I attended).
The ambition of the work is transferred from technical excellence to emotional depth: the two leads are deployed to imbue a lifetimes’ worth of suffering and thwarted ambition into two hours’ time. Terrence McNally’s book and John Doyle’s direction deploy them effectively.
This is, unquestioningly, Rivera’s show; she has been playing this role in multiple iterations across various developmental stages for about a decade, and this mastery is evident: in a show-stopping pas de deux with her younger self, Rivera’s exhalations of breath express more than any spoken line or song lyric ever could. Claire Zachanassian returns to Brachen less a woman than she was before -- literally: her leg and hand have been taken in various (bewilderingly glamorous) accidents across multiple marriages. Like an actor tearing into the deformities of Richard III’s title role , Rivera uses the false leg conceit as a means of even deeper pathos in restricted movement. On the other hand (no pun intended) for most of the show the false hand is forgotten -- but one hardly cares, as depriving a performer of her caliber the slightest gesture with so much as a pinky is, in truth, depriving ourselves.