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The Visit: Theater review by David Cote
Claire Zachanassian (Rivera) fled her dreary European town a disgraced, ruined girl, and she returns to Brachen a vengeful billionairess, planning to exact revenge on Anton Schell (Rees), the man who wooed and wronged her. When the old lovers reunite, Anton learns that Claire has a prosthetic leg and an ivory hand. “My plane crashed in Tierra del Fuego,” she explains. “I was the only one who crawled out of the wreckage. I’m unkillable.” Similarly nine-lived is The Visit, John Kander and the late Fred Ebb’s final collaboration, which has been kicking around regional theaters in various tinkerings since 2001. The version now on Broadway is the same I caught last summer at Williamstown Theatre Festival, and it remains fascinating and alluring, if finally repetitive and frustrating.
The source material is Swiss author Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1956 play—probably the first mistake. As a piece of postwar absurdism, The Visit could make for an interesting revival, but studded with Kander & Ebb’s Weill-and-vamp song stylings (however sleek and insinuating), it becomes a musical where the numbers retard the forward motion, which is, anyway, linear and predictable: Claire will have her revenge, and corruptible society will help her.
Great acting wouldn’t turn the mismatch into a great musical, but it also wouldn’t hurt: Rivera, of course, is naturally commanding and regal, but a better dramatic actor would squeeze more mileage from Claire’s mix of sadism and self-pity. Rees does well playing Schell as a husk of a man, but his Rex Harrison school of speak-singing drains power from the songs. Too underused are the actors playing their younger selves (Michelle Veintimilla, John Riddle), despite being onstage for nearly the entire show. At least John Doyle's staging features gorgeous visuals: Scott Pask’s looming, decrepit train station choked in vines, swathed in Japhy Weideman’s nimble shadows.
Greed and cowardice are laid bare in this inky moral fable, vividly evoked by yellow shoes and other accessories that appear and spread through the scenography like a golden virus. For all its flaws, though, you would never say the cast and crew of this often hypnotizing, eerie experiment were driven by fear or the lust for lucre.—David Cote
Lyceum Theatre (Broadway). Book by Terrence McNally. Music by John Kander. Lyrics by Fred Ebb. Directed by John Doyle. With Chita Rivera, Roger Rees. Running time: 1hr 40mins. No intermission.
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