Part of the Williamstown Theatre Festival
Review by Robert Gulack

Again and again, humanity is snapped down in a steel mousetrap fashioned of our own greed. One by one, the townspeople raise their hands, agreeing to sell their consciences for money, and, as they do, a horrible clang rings out, again and again. After that, we hear a delicate love ballad twisted into a nightmare, and then, a tearing, soul-freezing howl of noise as the town is bathed in blood money.

In these moments, Larry Hochman’s orchestrations deliver the full measure of what Friedrich Durrenmatt wanted his play, THE VISIT, to be – a searing indictment of humanity. How easy we find it, when the price is right, to do things we know are wrong! How brief the process of finding a way to justify ourselves to ourselves – how short the moment before we have totally forgotten our sins!

There are many other things to cheer in this new musical adaptation of THE VISIT, created by John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Terrence McNally, and directed by John Doyle for the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Kander’s music is both touching and tuneful throughout, and it is wonderful to see Chita Rivera, in her eighties, command the stage with such vigor and authority. Like Ms. Rivera’s emasculated servants in the play, who have clearly succumbed to Stockholm syndrome and can’t imagine life without her, we, too, would want nothing more than to stay with Ms. Rivera forever.

Staring Away Into Darkness

Then, too, there is Scott Pask’s set, which delivers the entire essence of the play from the audience’s first glance. At once awesome and spooky, it is a vast framework spiraling away forever into an infinite gloomy darkness. What once were skylights in a train station have become splintered frames filled only with broken glass. A torn, uneven lip of old and dusty floor tiles protrudes toward the audience. As the man-made train station has decayed, nature has begun to reclaim it, ivy crawling up the columns. Half natural and half not, it is as weird a combination as the aged billionairess played by Ms. Rivera, who strides into town on an artificial leg and waves an imperious artificial arm to claim her lethal revenge. “I’m unkillable,” she informs us with blunt self-confidence, and, indeed, few things appear harder to get rid of than our species’ insistence on vengeance.

While Pask’s train station is unforgettable, however, I am not persuaded by the choice this production made in having no other scenery. Doyle and Pask, after the opening moments, stage everything on various piles of the billionairess’ black suitcases, and I eventually found that strategy both monotonous and a little opaque. When the show begins with the cast walking off with the billionairess’ suitcases, the visual image seems to contradict the basic plot of the play, which is the town trying to figure out how to get their hands on the old lady’s stuff. Didn’t we just see them do that?

Since the revenge the old lady seeks is rooted in a love affair from decades before, it was effective to have the play haunted, from the beginning, by the ghosts of the two young lovers. (Michelle Veintimilla was gorgeous and vulnerable as the young version of Ms. Rivera’s billionairess.) A very catchy number, “Yellow Shoes,” portrays the growing complicity of the townspeople. But I was less impressed by the way other things were handled. The old lady shows up with a huge black coffin, but no one in town responds to the sight of it. She openly proclaims that her servants are eunuchs. This, too, doesn’t seem to stir any alarm or even interest in those hearing about it. In the second half of the twentieth-century, or later, how many people showed up in Europe with an entourage of eunuchs?

Ms. Rivera has an effective song summing up, verse by verse, her long list of munificent but short-lived spouses. But the song used to introduce the town’s growing hypocrisy, a less than winning number entitled “Back and Forth”, should be reconsidered. Since the moment involves people, one by one, learning from each other and repeating a phony moral justification for what they’re about to do, perhaps the composer should consider whether a fugue might be more appropriate.

A Very Special Love Story, Indeed

The most serious error made by this version of the material, however, is the insistence of the creators that the old lady seriously and sincerely loves the man she is murdering, and he seriously and sincerely loves her back throughout the protracted process of being murdered by her. If such a choice could ever work, it would have to be the entire subject of the evening, and the details as to how you can truly love someone who is killing you (for revenge!) would have to be convincingly dramatized. Roger Rees, playing the condemned former lover, is the performer who is, in this production, given the virtually impossible task of playing that emotion. Rees is quite charming in presenting, for example, his elderly character’s pride in his former sexual prowess, but he can’t sell the contradictions that the creators of this musical have foisted on him.

THE VISIT, as envisaged by Durrenmatt, it seems, was too cold for Kander, Ebb, and McNally – it had to become a love story. This blurs both the beginning and the ending of the material. At the top of the show, when the former lover is trying desperately to be charming to the aged billionairess, in order to win her money for the impoverished town, and she is confessing her list of artificial appendages, there is supposed to be a black comedy in watching Rees’ character try to cover up how grossed out he is. For the moment, he is a gigolo who cannot allow himself to be distracted by his horror at the thought of false limbs. (The repeated confession of one non-natural member after another would make a fine series of verses in a patter number. It goes unmusicalized here.) But if Rees’ character loves the old lady again from the moment he comes back into contact with her, he is never a hypocritical gigolo, but simply a devout admirer. The comedy vanishes.

At the end of the show, the constant attempt to portray the old lady as loving the man she’s murdering distracts us from Durrenmatt’s point. If the resolution of this plot is now to be taken as some kind of TRISTAN-UND-ISOLDE-like love/death, then their deaths are, in some sense, a good thing. And if their deaths are, in some sense, good, then the horror of what the town has brought themselves to do becomes beside the point. The townspeople may have sold themselves for money, but it turns out maybe that wasn’t so bad. True love has, after all, found its way. (McNally has compared the plot of THE VISIT to ROMEO AND JULIET, but there is a world of difference between two lovers separated by warring families and two lovers who become separated when he abandons her and then slanders her in court.) The triumph of true love is, of course, nothing like what Durrenmatt had in mind. Bringing true love into THE VISIT is as out of place as it would have been had Sweeney Todd been all romantic over Mrs. Lovett, or Mack the Knife swooned over Pirate Jenny. But I will not soon forget Kander’s luminous melodies, or the sad, foreboding twang of the zither echoing from the orchestra pit.

THE VISIT by Terrence McNally, John Kander, and Fred Ebb, based on the play by Friedrich Durrenmatt as translated by Maurice Valency, directed by John Doyle, and presented at the Williamstown Theatre Festival.

ROBERT GULACK holds an MFA in Playwriting from the Yale School of Drama, where he studied with Mamet and Kopit. He is the author of numerous plays seen in NYC, including CHURCHILL IN ATHENS, SIX HUSBANDS OF ELIZABETH THE QUEEN, and the award-winning ONE THOUSAND AND ONE.