New York City Theater
Finally. “The Visit,” which has been kicking around for years, lands on Broadway, intact from its engagement at the Williamstown Festival (see review). The still powerful story snakes, like tendrils, into notions of morality.
Here, once again, is Claire Zachanassian, in the person of Chita Rivera, rich beyond Croesus, returned after decades and several wealthy husbands, to Brachen, her birthplace. She has a grisly offer: in exchange for billions in cash, she demands the corpse of Anton Schell, the man who wronged her by impregnating her, lying in court, then abandoning her for an advantageous marriage. Sure of Anton’s eventual fate, she travels with a black coffin. “I shall take you in your coffin to Capri,” she says. “You will have your tomb in the park of my villa, where I can see you from my bedroom window. . . . You are mine alone, at last and forever.”
Set to an insinuatingly lovely score by John Kander and the late Fred Ebb with reminders of their equally ambivalent “Cabaret” and “Chicago,” the musical, atmospherically directed by John Doyle, is both romantic and chilling. True, for all its insidiousness, it is, overall, more romantic than chilling in Terrence McNally’s adaptation of Friedrich Düerrenmatt’s original work. First performed on Broadway by the great acting couple, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, Düerrenmatt’s cynical and ironic drama was a frightening, jaw-dropping experience, which the new musical elides in favor of nostalgia and regret.
Claire and Anton’s enclosed world of memory is enhanced by seeing them also as they once were. Young Claire and Young Anton are always here, here when older Claire offers the depressed town’s citizens more money than they’ve ever seen, here when she tells the story of her betrayal, here when the townspeople at first refuse her offer. Their youthful, genuine love contrasts with the grasping adults.
For this is a tale of greed as the original sin. When folk begin to buy on credit, using the billions of marks they don’t yet have to purchase yellow shoes (the color of money), youth and love become corroded. Avariciousness trumps morality.
The work is also political and religious. Written in 1956, only a few years after World War II, Dürrenmatt’s drama has a thematic connection to that conflict. When the half-Gypsy, half-Jewish Claire says, “I can afford a new world order,” the remark is not far from what the Nazis promulgated. Further, when the townspeople vote to accept or reject her bequest, the way they raise their hands is akin to a Nazi salute. As for the religious aspect, Claire is staying at the Hotel Golden Apostle and Anton very clearly represents a sacrifice for the townsfolk’s sins.
As Claire, Chita Rivera is every inch the star. Clad in costumer Ann Hould-Ward’s stunning white, fur-trimmed gown, she’s an avenging angel, single-minded, rasping out orders, emitting a presence that says “I’m here and I’m not going away.” Commanding, devoted to the character’s severity and handicaps (she has a false leg and hand) Rivera even does a shimmering pas de deux with her younger self, sensitively choreographed by Graciela Daniele.
Roger Rees plays Anton as a man without sentimentality, accepting his life and fate, earning pity and forgiveness. Standing out are the rich-voiced Jason Danieley as the schoolmaster, David Garrison as the hypocritical mayor and Mary Beth Peil as Anton’s wife, a woman on the edge of understanding. Especially creepy are the two eunuchs, played by Matthew Deming and Chris Newcombe.
Credits are top-notch, from Ward’s costumes to Japhy Weideman’s lighting, Dan Moses Schreier’s sound design, David Loud’s conducting of Larry Hochman’s orchestrations and, especially, Scott Pask’s ominous setting: a series of massive, diminishing, decaying columns. Like the show itself, the effect is cruel yet witty, blurring the lines between revenge and love.
--David A. Rosenberg
May 12, 2015