Gone but not forgotten: Review: THE VISIT

by Lynn on June 15, 2015

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Lyceum Theatre, New York City

Book by Terrence McNally
(based on the play by Friedrich Dürrenmatt as adapted by Maurice Valency.
Music by John Kander
Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Directed by John Doyle
Choreography by Graciela Daniele
Set by Scott Pask
Costumes by Ann Hould-Ward
Lighting by Japhy Weidman
Sound by Dan Moses Schreier
Starring: Jason Danieley
Mary Beth Peil
Roger Rees
John Riddle
Chita Rivera
Michelle Veintimilla

What was Terrence McNally thinking when he gutted Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s play and removed the high stakes of the original?

Pre-Comment. This production closes today after less than two months after it opened to tepid reviews. The book is the problem—I can’t believe I’m saying that of a Terrence McNally effort, but I am.

The Story. Claire Zachanassian is the richest woman in the world and she’s coming back to her home town of Bracken. The town is bankrupt. No one can make a go of it. Times are desperate. She is their only hope of survival. They try to put on a good show of welcome when she arrives. She knows their plight. She sympathizes. She offers to help with $1 million to the town and $1 million to be divided amongst the townspeople. Pandemonium of joy. But she has a condition. What is it? She wants them to kill Anton Schell. HUH? Yup, kill him.

When she was 17 years old and living in the town, she was in love with Anton Schell and apparently he with her. She was pregnant by him. When she told him he dumped her. He had a better prospect in Matilde, the daughter of a store owner. Schell went to work for him. In the meantime Claire took Schell to court. Schell paid off two friends with a bottle of schnapps to say they slept with her and not Schell. The judge heard the case and decided against Claire and threw her out of town, in the winter.

She became a prostitute. She met old Zachanassian who married her and left her a rich widow. She plotted her revenge and now she wants it. The townsfolk are aghast. They would never turn in their friend for money. But, they start buying things on credit, mostly in his store, things they don’t need but want, like yellow shoes. As the play progresses, more and more people appear wearing more and more yellow items, gloves, shoes, handkerchief.

Claire waits patiently for the people to come around. They do need her help. The town has failed, businesses have gone under. They plead to her. She knows how desperate they are she tells them because she’s the cause. She’s bought the businesses and then let them fail. She has not done anything to help in order to make them come to her for assistance.
The plan is diabolical.

She re-connects with Schell. They still love each other. He tries to explain his behaviour. Matilde offered a better chance—to work in her father’s store and then take it over. They both know the townspeople will turn him in. Claire tells him when the deed is done she will take his body back to Capri and bury him in a special plot she has for him and she will be able to visit his grave every day. He is resigned.

The Production. Scott Pask designed a huge structure with a domed roof of broken window panes to suggest the once opulence of the train station—at least I think it was a train station. The townsfolk have come out to welcome Claire. They all dress in drab colours, in clothes that are patched and well worn. They are fidgety about her arrival. Will she remember them? The schoolteacher prides himself that she will remember him. They all think of positive things to say about Claire.

She finally arrives. Director John Doyls has given Chita Rivera as Claire a star entrance to die for. She is dressed in a white fur hat and white full-length coat. Her hair is jet black. Juxtaposed with the drabness of the town and the people she looks dazzling. She and strides on from upstage left, across the back, behind a walk way bordered by tall pillars. She uses a cane because, as she will tell the townsfolk, she has a wooden leg, among other artificial parts, and needs the cane for stability. Then she strides downstage almost to the lip and stands there, looking out with a sneer. The audience goes wild. The townsfolk are stunned by her glamour.

She is followed by her minions. A tall man, wears sunglasses, a top hat, and carries her luggage. Two other men in whiteface, black sunglasses and gloves speak in unison in high voices. They are blind and eunuchs. The tall man is the former judge. She found him and blackmailed him into becoming her butler. The two eunuchs are the two men who lied about her in court. She found then, had them castrated, and now uses them as servants.

Also present on the stage almost at all times, are the younger versions of both Claire and Schell. Most often they either sit on the luggage trolley watching their older selves, or circle each other, attraction, passion in every move. In one wonderful scene the older Claire and the younger Claire (Michelle Veintimilla) do a pas de deux. Graciela Daniele choreographed it. It’s both touching and thrilling to see that legend Rivera and Veintimilla dance and convey longing and even hope as they stand back to back, their arms entwine. When Veintimilla dances with John Riddle (the younger Schell) it’s romantic, confident and without inhibition.

When she tells the townsfolk what happened to her, she lists a litany of prosthetics because of accidents and mishaps that have befallen her. Operations; replacement parts, she just keeps on keeping on. She (or is it Chita Rivera) looks out to the audience and in a growly voice says. “I’m unkillable.” Brings the house down.

She reveals how each person in that town treated her badly when she was that pregnant teen. She had the baby and it died. She has a soft spot for Anton Schell even now. As played by Roger Rees, he is a bit stopped, reticent, seems beaten down, perhaps embarrassed. Life has not turned out as he hoped when he married Matilde. Even his own children are buying things they can’t afford. Schell is alone in the world really.

The townsfolk think Schell is a loser. He ran the store into the ground, they say. He’s an embarrassment because of what he did to Claire, they say. He’s a laughing stock. Schell’s fate is inevitable.

When the deed is done, Claire enters in a black dress and no black wig. This time her hair is grey and pulled back. Schell’s coffin is there. She will now take him to Capri. She fires the butler and the two eunuchs and pays them off.it

Comment. This is the last musical that John Kander (music) and Fred Ebb (Lyrics) wrote. They tried to get it produced for 15 years. It had a run at the Williamstown Festival with Chita Rivera playing Claire and it final came to Broadway. Unfortunately Fred Ebb was not able to see it as he died in 2004. You have to admire such tenacity and faith in a project. The Visit by Friedrich Dürrenmatt is just the kind of material for which Kander and Ebb are well suited. But truth to tell, I didn’t find the music/songs memorable. Perhaps if I heard it again……

For me the real disappointment is the book by Terrence McNally. He took the dramatic guts out of the story and completely lowered the stakes. In Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s play the town in which this takes place is called Güllen. It means manure. I’ve even seen it translated as ‘horse shit.” I think Mr. Dürrenmatt knew a thing or two about irony. In Terrence McNally’s version the town is Bracken. (‘a course, common fern’) Na, it just doesn’t have the same note of irony to it.

Dürrenmatt named him Anton Schill but to an English speaker like me, I think of a shill who is all enthusiastic to entice customers to come into a circus etc. Or at least I do. In the play Schill is considered the best person to sweet talk Claire into saving the town. He plays along. In the Terrence McNally version he’s called Schell. Eh…..

The biggest error for me is that McNally has made Schell a down and out loser. He is a bankrupt in business; a laughing stock; not too swift. That makes no sense. The whole town is bankrupt so how can anyone buy anything from his store? Blaming him for the failure of his store in that terrible economy makes no sense. And if you make him a loser at the top then his downfall in which the townsfolk do kill him for money is not that much of a fall.

In Dürrenmatt’s version Schill was the most beloved member of the town. He might have been the next mayor. Now they want to kill him. His fall in this case is profound, not so in the musical.

I love the play. I love how the lure of money makes perhaps decent people one minute become monsters ready to kill somebody for the lure of money the next minute. The greed of it. Love it. Loved seeing Chita Rivera own that stage. But the musical is a real disappointment.

Tom Kirdahy, Edgar Bronfman Jr. Tom Smedes, Hugh Hayes and about 26 other producers present:

Run: April 23-June 14, 2015.
Cast: 16; 11 men, 5 women
Running Time: 90 minutes.

Leave a Comment