Theater review by Adam Feldman
The Visitor has arrived at its opening night at the Public Theater with red flags flapping wildly in the air. Trouble has been circling the production for some time. First, the Public pushed back the show’s preview period by a week, and then it abruptly canceled the first two performances. Co-star Ari’el Stachel, who had been attached to the project for years, departed the show days later; so, it seems, has lyricist and co–book writer Brian Yorkey, whose bio is not in the Playbill (and who is pointedly not thanked in a program note by the Public’s artistic director). A week before the press was invited to see it, the show was 2 hours and 15 minutes long; by the time it opened for review, it had been slashed to 90 minutes without a break. These are not good signs.
With that kind of build-up, it’s hard not to expect the worst, which is more or less what you get at The Visitor. Adapted from Tom McCarthy’s touching indie film, the musical starts at a disadvantage: It’s the story of an uptight middle-aged white college professor whose serendipitous encounter with a pair of undocumented immigrants opens his eyes to oppression and opens his heart to groovy new rhythms. (He learns to play the djembe!) “It is possible to imagine a version of this story…that would be obvious and sentimental, an exercise in cultural condescension and liberal masochism. Indeed, it’s nearly impossible to imagine it any other way,” wrote A.O. Scott in his 2007 New York Times review. “And yet, astonishingly enough, Mr. McCarthy has.” The creators of The Visitor have not. The understatement and nuance that lifted the film above its familiar, white-centric, Magical Immigrant plot are absent from the musical; what remains is a dated exercise in First World consciousness-raising that now has the additional burden of seeming constantly, palpably uncomfortable with its own story.
Dear, sweet David Hyde Pierce plays the central role of Walter; Alysha Deslorieux and Ahmad Maksoud are Zainab and Tarek, the lovey-dovey couple whom he discovers to be living in his New York City apartment, and Jacqueline Antamarian is Tarek’s elegant mother, Mouna. Despite gamely earnest performances by these actors and a percussion-playing chorus of 12, and for all the musical’s evident efforts to beef up the non-white parts—Kwame Kwei-Armah is co-credited for the book—The Visitor seems lost and in desperate need of directions. It doesn’t get much help from veteran director Daniel Sullivan, a wizard at directing plays but inexperienced with musicals, or from Yorkey and Tom Kitt’s middling score, which sledgehammers its most obvious points. (Mouna and Zainab sing a duet to the Statue of Liberty: “Hey liberty lady, statuesque lady, what do you hide in that robe?”)
“Wake up,” sings Walter to his bored students at the start of the show, but by the end it is he who has had an awakening, one that he voices in an overwrought and hectoring 11-o’clock number: “If there is a God, well, then, a thousand old and tired white men, a million old and scared white men, will wake up just like me—and fast.” Who in the audience at the Public Theater needs to hear this sermon at this particular moment in history? The irony is that although The Visitor plays like a blunt plea for wokeness, its nearly exclusive focus on the white man’s journey is fundamentally unwoke by nature; the show wrestles this problem to a loss, and seems to know it has been overpowered. Watching the production, one gets the sense of talented artists who have dragged themselves to the finish line with whatever they could salvage from a misbegotten project. In retrospect, perhaps those weren’t red flags after all, but white ones of surrender.
The Visitor. Public Theater (Off Broadway). Music by Tom Kitt. Lyrics by Brian Yorkey. Book by Kwame Kwei-Armah and Brian Yorkey. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. With David Hyde Pierce, Ahmad Maksoud, Alysha Deslorieux, Jacqueline Antamarian. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission.
The Visitor | Photograph: Courtesy Joan Marcus