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Let’s give the devil her due. Claire Zachanassian arrives in a cloud of smoke in Signature Theatre’s The Visit, attired in a blinding white traveling outfit tipped in fur and accompanied by a freakish retinue of murderers and eunuchs toting the only piece of luggage she requires: a gleaming coffin. Got your attention, has she? Well, she’ll have no trouble keeping it. This lady knows how to do more than make an entrance.
Claire is a billionaire, a self-described whore, an oft-married, cigar-smoking, 70-something dowager with a wooden leg, and in the person of Chita Rivera, she is pretty damn magnificent. The citizens of Brachen, her hometown, can’t tear their eyes from her, even before she’s announced her intention to shower them with billions in cold hard cash if they’ll just do her one tiny favor.
That favor, as in the 1956 Friedrich Dürrenmatt play that served as source material for this dark, somewhat schizophrenic musical, involves Claire’s first and only love, a shopkeeper named Anton (George Hearn) with whom she is still visibly smitten. Remembering his touch all these decades later as a youthful Anton (D.B. Bonds) materializes on stage to rest his hand gently on her shoulder, Claire’s hauteur melts, her eyes turn liquid, and the hard line of her mouth softens as if waiting to be kissed.
If The Visit were a conventional love story, this moment might occasion a love song by composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb. But the authors of Cabaret and Chicago wouldn’t have given the material a second glance if it didn’t have some acid to it. A lot, really: It’s a tale not of love but of long-postponed vengeance, so the melancholy ballad they have young Anton sing is about ghosts (“in every dream I dream there’s a specter of you, you, you”). And when, just moments later, Hearn’s wistful, gray, all-too-real Anton touches Claire’s shoulder, her eyes are clear, her gaze cold as ice.
For, despite the cheery little ditty the townfolk sang on her arrival, and the many wealthy hubbies she’s had since she left town (enumerated in the patter song “I Walk Away”), Claire has returned to Brachen to ask that Anton be executed by the very folks who shunned her in her youth, helped him betray her, and shopped at his store for decades thereafter. She’s prepared to pay handsomely for justice, and is equally prepared to wait when they reject her offer. Happy even, smiling knowingly as the whole town—even Anton’s family—starts buying luxuries on credit, as if expecting an imminent windfall. If she had two feet, she’d no doubt dance a jig.
Casting a legendary Broadway hoofer as a woman with a wooden leg may seem perverse, but in Signature’s intimate confines, Rivera has no trouble riveting attention with shoulder-rolls and shimmies. And when Ann Reinking provides her with some strolling, stiff-jointed choreography for a “One-Legged Tango,” the star makes it clear that no amount of plot-mandated hobbling is going to deny her a showstopper.
Hearn is admirably sturdy of baritone and gentle of manner in the mostly reactive part of Anton, who is all inner turmoil and little outward show. Librettist Terrence McNally hasn’t given him a lot to work with, and his songs are mostly understated, but to understand where his Anton is coming from, you need only watch him let his family off the hook as they abandon him, heartfelt regret and affection mingling in his eyes. Also fine are Jeremy Webb as the town’s anguished schoolmaster/conscience and Karen Murphy as Anton’s long-suffering but adaptable wife.
While Kander and Ebb have hardly outdone themselves in the razzle-dazzle department, their score is elegant and unforced, which is more than can be said for the central notion of musicalizing Dürrenmatt’s dour treatise on money’s corrupting power. It’s a talky, dilatory play, less about the “you, you, you” of thwarted romance than about the wait, wait, wait of deteriorating morality. Kander and Ebb are arguably just the team to make greed and cravenness sing—certainly they’ve done it elsewhere—but that aspect of the story is all in the plot’s framework, it isn’t what they’ve musicalized.
Though the current Signature production is a reworking of one Frank Galati has been laboring on for years (first staged in 2001 with Rivera and John McMartin at the Goodman Theater) it traffics in a surprising number of uncompleted gestures—songs that fade away, characters who don’t connect, images that are individually arresting but that don’t add up. Take, for instance, the tableau with which the director opens the show. Designer Derek McLane has provided a landscape of urban neglect—stage strewn with debris, broken furniture, an overturned tricycle—into which wanders a dejected Anton. He picks up an abandoned violin that is miraculously still in one piece, studies it intently for a moment, and then, as the orchestra whispers a chord that sounds like a distant train whistle, drops the instrument in a garbage can.
Now, try to imagine a more potent image with which to begin a musical than the trashing of a violin. It can’t help signifying a world devoid of music, certainly an arresting starting point for a song-and-dance show. And it could be made to suggest any number of other things: the fate of a character, of a culture, of a sensibility, even of a town that lacks middle-school arts funding. Except that at Signature, it’s never referenced again. And it’s not as if there aren’t opportunities: Claire’s mother was a gypsy, her father a Jew (could he have fiddled on the roof?). Thinking back, it occurred to me that I might have heard a line about Claire playing an instrument as a child, but I can’t find it in the script, and even if it’s there somewhere, it’s not pointed enough to remind you of that violin at the start. Toward the end of the evening, I half-expected the stage to return to its littered state—a commentary on the scant impact of the town’s brutally earned blood-money—but the image never returns. It and that violin turn out merely to have been theatrical gestures, and without subsequent elaboration, they end up seeming empty ones.