WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Justice, revenge, guilt, greed, moral corruption, social hypocrisy, abandoned love are all themes in Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s disturbing morality fable, "The Visit."
A huge success for Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne when first staged in the late 1950s, this darkly comic tale of ”thoughts we must not think” was crafted into a musical by Kander and Ebb, the supremely creative team who have perfected the telling of other dark and moody pieces ("Cabaret," "Chicago," "Kiss of the Spiderwoman").
Re-teamed with the award-winning playwright Terrence McNally, they created a re-telling of this sordid story of seduction and self-interest.
Simply put, it’s a story of the world’s wealthiest woman, Claire Zachanassian, who has arrived at her bankrupt home, the town of Brachen, to buy justice. Her plan? Claire wants the life of the man who destroyed her life, her old lover, Anton Schell.
WHERE: Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, Mass.
WHEN: Through Aug. 17
HOW MUCH: $70
MORE INFO: 413-597-3400, www.wtfestival.org
Whittled down to 95 minutes with no intermission, the musical adaptation pushes the love story forward with some success. But in doing so, it sidelines the other themes that infused the original play with a visceral punch.
And here’s a sort of paradox: With all that has been stripped away from the original work, and the refocusing on a lesser (this is debatable) theme of the play, I strongly suspect the enjoyment of the musical may be enriched if you are unfamiliar with the original work. Unencumbered by what came before, the music may be more enjoyable for what it is and not what it missed. The story of love gone wrong may suffice and the tamped down commentary on social and moral corruption may not appear sorely removed. That is fine, as this is the musical, not the play. That being said, it cannot be ignored that the musical’s lack of threat and horror that is supplied in spades in the original play, robs the evening of dramatic heft, leaving a rather wan and tired tale, albeit with some pleasant music.
The cast is, without reservation, uniformly excellent. Jason Danieley’s heart-breaking solo “The Only One," is powerfully emotional and perfectly played. David Garrison, once again proves himself a chameleon of extraordinary talent. Judy Kuhn, criminally under-used here, shines without stealing any scene, even though she is more than capable of doing so. These are some of Broadway’s finest -- and they are in supporting roles.
And then there is Roger Rees. Wonderful. Manic, guilty, sympathetic in each facet of the victim/perpetrator Anton Schell, it’s a fully realized and honest performance.
All of this takes a back seat to the magnificent Chita Rivera. Vibrant, vital and in fabulous voice, Rivera is nothing short of wonderful. Finding the humor and irony with ease, (“I Own It”), the dramatic emotional moments align perfectly in her pairing with Rees. Rivera and Rivera alone would be worth the cost of admission, but when she is supported by such a gifted cast, the show is, quite honestly, un-missable.
Kander’s score fares better than Ebb’s lyrics which sometimes hit cliché instead of clever. The design of the show is magnificent. The dilapidated, vine-wrapped railway station created by scenic designer Scott Pask reeks of decay and is wonderfully complemented by Ann Hould Ward’s costumes and Japhy Weidemen’s lighting.
Although John Doyle’s staging is clean and uncluttered, it lacks a heightened sense of theatricality that the piece requires. The blatant folly of the eunuchs, the strong use of “cowardice” yellow, the ever-present placement of younger Claire and Anton in the shadows, a pas de deux between the older and young Claire are great choices to “de-naturalize” the storytelling, but as a whole, the evening needs more touch of the absurd and fantastical.
The production lacks the tone of threat, fear, and desperation. These issues are spoken in the dialogue. They are visible in the details of the design of the show (even down to the brilliant make-up design for the townspeople), but the directorial choice to mute these issues leaves the show emotionally deflated.
As talented as Doyle has proved himself with other work, thoughts occur of what a director with a bolder, more avant-garde theatrical vision (Simon McBurney, Darko Tresnjak) might do with the piece.
Perhaps with a tweak to the book, allowing the corruption of the townspeople to manifest more fully, less singing about love and a more theatrical, absurdist style is all that is needed to get this show into New York.
One can hope. Rivera and her cast deserve it.