Play's dark themes offer a chilling, riveting 'Visit'

June 05, 2008|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,Sun theater critic

The Visit takes us to a place that is dark and cold and odd. Our shoulders tense and we hug our arms to our sides, and the sound coming out of our mouths is somewhere between a laugh and a gasp.

When we have returned again to our seats and the actors take their bows, the applause is subdued. It doesn't reflect a lack of enthusiasm for the production itself - which is masterful in every regard, from the performances to the choreography to the set design - but the strangeness of the journey and conflicted way it made us feel. We're glad we had the chance to see what we've seen and to learn what we've learned, but maybe not entirely.

The production at Signature Theatre is just the second staging ever of The Visit, which was created by the songwriting team of John Kander and Fred Ebb. The show, directed then as now by that theatrical sleight-of-hand specialist Frank Galati, had its world premiere in Chicago shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The mood at that time was not right for a play this unsparing in its depiction of human failing, and it closed with relatively little fanfare. Thankfully, seven years later, The Visit is getting a second chance. The drama has already garnered largely positive reviews from such national publications as The New York Times and Variety, and there is talk of a possible Broadway run.

I don't know whether a show of this intelligence and complexity would be a good fit on the Great White Way, which is more comfortable with musicals that paint in primary colors. But this show deserves to be seen by a large audience capable of internalizing what it has to say.

The Visit is based on a 1956 play by Friedrich Durrenmatt and tells the story of Claire Zachanassian, the richest woman in the world. Now elderly, Claire visits Brachen, the small Swiss town she left at age 17. The village has fallen on hard economic times, and Claire promises to help - for a horrific price.

Kander and Ebb's best-known musicals are Cabaret and Chicago, which respectively chronicle the Nazi rise to power and a corrupt criminal justice system, so it's no surprise that T he Visit is similarly cynical. When there's a downpour in Brachen, it rains lemonade.

But it's sweetened lemonade. While many songs, such as "Yellow Shoes" and "I Walk Away," display the sardonic wit of the duo's earlier work, other numbers, such as "Winter" and "You, You, You," are surprisingly lyrical and romantic.

The ballads help to humanize Claire for the audience. She has done what she needed to do to survive, and over the years, her nature has become hardened, symbolized by her many artificial body parts.

Casting Chita Rivera as Claire was risky in a way, for this is not a role that plays to her strengths as a dancer. Rivera gets to perform a few high kicks in "The One-Legged Tango" and appears to enjoy herself immensely. Though it's a pity she doesn't get to step out more, Rivera manages to dance even while sitting nearly motionless on a chaise lounge, slowly expelling cigar smoke from her scarily reddened mouth. Try looking away from her. Just try.

One of the interesting things about this production is the way that even the performer's flaws somehow work in their favor. Rivera partly talks her way through her songs, but her most guttural utterances are in keeping with her character. George Hearn, who plays Claire's former love, Anton Schell, still has the splendid baritone he displayed to such chilling effect when leading the original national tour of Sweeney Todd. A few times during Sunday's matinee, he went badly off pitch. But even the mangled notes seemed to rise from Anton's excess of emotion.

This cast is strong even in the tiniest roles, and to hear its members in full voice is a glorious thing. Creepily effective performances were delivered by Cristen Paige as Anton's daughter, Ottile; Mark Jacoby as an officious mayor; and Ryan Lowe and Matthew Deming as two eunuchs. Dancer Brian O'Brien has feet as sharp as diamonds.

Ann Reinking's choreography is sly, cunning and deceptively casual. In "Out of the Darkness," the townspeople thrust out a leg here, stamp a foot there. Her movements are of a piece with Derek McLane's set. In the first scene, the stage is littered with patched and worn household tools and toys. Wheels are missing, and wires are twisted to grotesque angles.

These things are broken - and the townspeople move as though they are.

It's an open question as to the identity of Claire's intended victim. What seems at first to be revenge, straight and simple, becomes a kind of warped love story. Galati plays up the tenderness, and the genuine poignancy makes the characters' actions all the more horrifying.

At the end, the townspeople have gotten everything they wanted. They stand, ashen-faced, their mouths slightly agape. Claire doesn't even glance in their direction as she walks away forever, trailed by her eunuchs.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

If you go

The Visit runs through June 22 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington, Va. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays; and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $56-$77. Call 703-573-7328 or go to signature-theatre.org.

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