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Fourteen years after it was set to open on Broadway, “The Visit,” the final John Kander-Fred Ebb musical, has gotten there at last, extensively reworked along the way by Mr. Kander, the composer, and Terrence McNally, who wrote the book. (Ebb, who wrote the lyrics, died in 2004.) This production, previously seen last summer at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, was worth the wait. Directed by John Doyle, the master of miniaturized musicals, and starring Chita Rivera, who made her Broadway debut 62 years ago and still has what it takes, “The Visit” is a cynical tragicomedy whose score is as gorgeous as its heart is hard. If that’s your cup of arsenic, you’ve come to the right apothecary.
Based on Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1956 play, “The Visit” is the story of Claire (Ms. Rivera), a rich old crone who pays a long-delayed visit to Brachen, her decaying home town, whose impoverished citizens need help and trust she’ll give it to them. And so she will—but only if they’ll be so kind as to first do her the favor of murdering Anton (Roger Rees), a well-liked shopkeeper who jilted her long ago and on whom she now means to have her revenge….
Mr. Kander’s soaring, waltz-scented love songs are harmonized in an off-center manner subtly suggestive of dirty work at the crossroads. (Imagine a carton of cream that’s a day away from curdling and you’ll get the idea.) As for Ms. Rivera, who sounds like a cross between Hermione Gingold and Rex Harrison and is made up to resemble a walking mummy, she’s all too terrifyingly believable as Claire. When she assures Anton that “I’ve waited a lifetime for this moment,” you’ll feel your insides shriveling.
Mr. Rees, by contrast, is rather too ingratiating, and Mr. McNally’s jokey book softens the impact of the play. In addition, the Broadway version of “The Visit” has been cut down to 90 minutes, doubtless to render Dürrenmatt’s harsh parable even more accessible to Broadway audiences. As a result, the show is now too fast on its feet. (The good folk of Brachen shouldn’t take Claire’s bait that quickly.) But “The Visit” is horrifically potent in every other way…
It’s so uncommon for up-and-coming playwrights to make it to Broadway nowadays that Lisa D’Amour’s “Airline Highway” is of interest for that reason alone. After its premiere last year by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, it has transferred to Broadway mostly intact, and Joe Mantello’s production, in which set designer Scott Pask has put a good-sized chunk of a seedy New Orleans motel onstage, is a young author’s dream.
I wish the play were as good, but it’s a wholly derivative piece of work that has been knocked together from refurbished spare theatrical parts. Ms. D’Amour might just as well have called it “The Hot L New Orleans, or, An Iceman Named Saroyan.” The formula is just that: We get to know a gaggle of beautiful losers who’ve ended up at the Humming Bird Motel, there to face their variously hopeless fates in the manner of—yes, you guessed it—a family. All are straight out of Central Casting…
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To read my complete review of The Visit, go here.
To read my complete review of Airline Highway, go here.