The Visit

Goodman Theatre

You think the U.S. has a crisis of consumer confidence? Consider Brachen, Switzerland, the fictional town in which the Goodman Theatre’s new musical The Visit is set. This backwater is gripped by grinding poverty and dead-end despair. Shopkeeper Anton Schell has laid in a supply of fine liquors and stylish yellow shoes, but no one can afford to buy them, not even his own family. The town fathers take pride in the fact that “Goethe once spent a night here,” but any genuine cultural significance–or the money required to support it–is long since gone.

Brachen’s only claim to fame is Claire Zachanassian, a much married billionairess internationally lauded for her philanthropy. Born and raised in Brachen, Claire has ignored her hometown for 50 years, during which time the once affluent community has gone to seed. But now, in the winter of her life, Claire announces her decision to return–and, the villagers hope, to endow the town with enough money to restore its prosperity. The linchpin of their hopes is Anton, Claire’s onetime boyfriend. And indeed, their long-ago love affair is the key to Claire’s eventual offer of financial salvation, but not in the way Anton and his neighbors expect. She’s willing to pay billions in return for revenge–she calls it justice–against Anton, who seduced, impregnated, and ditched her when she was a teenager.

Claire’s terms are simple: if you want my money, commit ritual murder. And though the Brachenites express horror at her offer, they start buying that pricey booze and those colorful clodhoppers at Anton’s shop–on credit, of course. As their debt soars, Anton’s fate becomes inevitable. The real target of Claire’s vengeance, however, isn’t Anton but Brachen itself: he will die, but the town will have to live with its atrocity.

The late Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt came up with that brilliantly macabre premise, which makes The Visit a perfect offering for the Halloween season, in his 1956 “tragic comedy” Der Besuch der alten Dame (“The Visit of the Old Lady”). Generally seen in America in Maurice Valency’s translation (introduced on Broadway in 1958 by Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne under the direction of up-and-coming Brit Peter Brook and first seen in Chicago in 1960, when the Lunts brought it to the Blackstone), The Visit is pretty cynical stuff for a musical. Its heroine is a vengeful monster, its hero a weakling, its supporting characters easily corrupted fools. Oklahoma! this ain’t.

But songwriters John Kander and Fred Ebb have tackled dark source material before, most successfully in Cabaret, Chicago, and Kiss of the Spider Woman. And this production reunites them with Chita Rivera, whose star power helped sell Spider Woman to Broadway audiences that might not otherwise have sat through a show about political prisoners being tortured in South America. Also onboard is playwright Terrence McNally, Kander and Ebb’s collaborator on Spider Woman, and longtime leading man John McMartin. In various combinations, Rivera, McMartin, and Kander and Ebb have been involved with such landmarks as West Side Story, Sweet Charity, and Follies as well as Chicago and Cabaret. The presence of these aging masters brings to The Visit an irresistible sense of theatrical history as well as a subtextual theme of age and reflection. When Rivera as Claire and McMartin as Anton sing the final duet, “In the Forest Again”–she leaning back against him, he enfolding her as they look out at an invisible horizon somewhere up by the mezzanine–you can’t help but think about how many times they and other Broadway performers have enacted numbers like this in exactly the same position.

Such sentiment is hardly what The Visit should be about, however; compromises–some inevitable but some simply misguided–have been made in the process of bending Durrenmatt’s “wicked” (his word) play into the format of a Broadway musical. Durrenmatt explicitly rejected attempts to label his work an allegory, consciously setting the action in what he would only describe as “a small town somewhere in Central Europe.” Yet clearly the story reflects Hitler’s corruption of Germany and vengeful scapegoating of the Jews–as it does Durrenmatt’s worldview: as a young man, he watched World War II from the Swiss sidelines. McNally, Kander, Ebb, and director Frank Galati’s adaptation highlights these implications. Besides specifying Switzerland as the setting (Derek McLane’s set is dominated by a painted backdrop of snowy Alpine peaks), the authors have made Claire (in the words of one song) “50 percent a Gypsy, 50 percent a Jewess, 100 percent a bastard”: Claire’s parents never wed because mixed marriages were forbidden, so she was illegitimate–and stigmatized for her illegitimacy. There are also a few sidelong cracks about Hitler’s legacy: “We all got rich during World War II,” the villagers sing, lowering their voices to a guilty whisper on the last three words, reminding us of how Swiss bankers laundered Nazi plunder. Later, after the townsfolk greet Claire with a Bach chorale, Claire says with wry approval: “You can never go wrong with Bach. Not like Wagner.”

Even more contrary to Durrenmatt’s spirit is the sentimentalizing of Claire and Anton’s relationship, which climaxes in a bizarre liebestod. Acknowledging the accuracy of Claire’s charges, Anton accepts her exorbitant demand–because, he realizes, he still loves her. And she loves him, it seems: having him killed (and his body entombed in one of her many homes) is her way of laying claim to him. Achieving this goal seems to humanize her: she doffs her red wig and elaborate clothing and makes her final appearance with her natural gray hair, clad in a simple suit.

Such lightening of the material makes The Visit a more comfortable theatrical experience than Durrenmatt ever wanted this disturbing black comedy to be. Worse, it’s unconvincing: having Anton declare his love for Claire as he faces death is strained to say the least. It lessens the horror of Anton’s fate, contradicting Durrenmatt’s view of humanity as “existentially menaced by the worst possible turn of events”–a chillingly fascinating perspective as we contemplate the threat of terrorists armed with nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.

Yet there are many engaging touches in the production, most of them Durrenmatt’s ideas amplified by musicalization (Kander’s music borrows from such styles as mittel-European operetta, Weimar cabaret, folk songs, and Bergian atonalism yet always ends up sounding like Broadway). Claire enters from beneath the stage, emerging through a trapdoor via elevator seated on a mountain of beautiful black-and-silver luggage–including a coffin–smoking a big cigar and wearing a fur-trimmed white dress (Susan Hilferty designed the costumes). A grim running joke involves Claire’s false leg–she lost her real one in the accident that widowed and enriched her. The fancy footwear that signals the townspeople’s growing, unspoken intention to accept Claire’s demand is the centerpiece of a jaunty dance number, “Yellow Shoes,” led by Guy Adkins as Anton’s rebellious son (yes, even he goes along with the murder) and Jim Corti as the town doctor (recalling Howard Morris in an old Sid Caesar sketch). The music and lyrics and Ann Reinking’s choreography put a cheery spin on this eerie situation. Anton’s beaten-down wife (the excellent Ami Silvestre) joins the mayor’s petulant spouse (McKinley Carter) to gossip about Claire in a comic duet, “You Know Me,” that recalls “The Grass Is Always Greener” from Kander and Ebb’s Woman of the Year.

Best of all are the comically grotesque quintet who attend Claire: her elderly butler (James Harms, recalling Ernest Thesiger in Bride of Frankenstein), two gum-chewing thugs improbably garbed as 18th-century Viennese courtiers (Rob Hatzenbeller and Matt Orlando), and a pair of chubby castrati (countertenors Mark Crayton and Raymond Zrinsky)–cabaret clowns who look like Tweedledum and Tweedledee as reimagined by Magritte. Adam Pelty is the dandified young man who turns out to be Claire’s husband–but not for long, as she’s in the habit of discarding her men (she has a whim of iron). Strong support also comes from Mark Jacoby as the blustery mayor and Steven Sutcliffe as the earnest schoolmaster, whose crisis of conscience gives the story its only real suspense.

In typical fashion, Galati has provided charmingly offbeat visual details. A surrealistic eye chandelier (a la Cocteau or Bunuel) hangs over the banquet hall where Claire unveils her demand; miniature haystacks dangle from the ceiling of the hayloft where Claire and Anton once made love. But Galati’s propensity for clunkily clumping the chorus together drags the show down at crucial moments. Reinking’s dances (which also include formulaic pas de deux for Tina Cannon as the young Claire and the vocally superb Brian Herriott as young Anton) aren’t connected to the rest of the production, which needs a director with a darker sensibility and stronger feel for kinetic excitement. The Visit is never boring or confusing–but one can’t help thinking how much more exciting it could be in the hands of a Harold Prince, a Sam Mendes, or a Susan Stroman (never mind a Jerome Robbins or a Bob Fosse).

Still, if Galati hadn’t been the guiding force behind this production, it probably would never have premiered at the Goodman, never have offered employment to local performers and technicians, never have given Chicago audiences the rare chance to watch Rivera in action. Like Anton looking at Claire after 50 years, one is a little shocked to realize that the onetime West Side Story wildcat is a senior citizen, her abilities as a dancer curtailed though her charisma and subtle physical and vocal expressiveness remain intact. (Both her flair and her limitations are evident in “I Would Never Leave You,” a campy tango for her and her five-man retinue.)

Rivera’s by no means the only star who could sell this show; it would make a wonderful showcase for Angela Lansbury (for whom it was originally intended), Eartha Kitt, or Bea Arthur, and it could probably have a life on the regional-theater circuit as a vehicle for local leading ladies of a certain age. But Rivera is one of a kind. When she sits alone onstage in her last solo, “Love and Love Alone,” singing the melancholy, Weill-like melody in her husky Marlene Dietrich-Lotte Lenya baritone, it’s almost a musical-theater apotheosis–a genuine moment of magic in this interesting but imperfect show.