In The Visit, a billionaire widow bribes an entire town to execute a former lover she hasn’t seen in decades, eunuchs wear bright yellow platform shoes and white face paint for reasons that are never quite clear, and — of course — everyone sings. It is, to put it mildly, a very strange show.
The musical, which is based on a 1956 satirical play by the late Swiss dramatist Friedrich Dürrenmatt (as adapted by Maurice Valency), is intended to be a kind of fairy tale parable about greed, revenge and love. And indeed, there is a sort of fairy tale vibe about the production — the set, by Scott Pask, an abandoned train station with gnarled vines and blasted-out windows, has an enchanted forest feel — but it’s more like the scarier, earlier Germanic variety, like the one in which Cinderella’s stepsisters get their toes cut off. Like many of those tales, it’s more disturbing than entertaining.
At the center of the drama is Claire Zachanassian (the indefatigable Chita Rivera), a former resident of the small European town of Brachen, who in the years since she left “married very often and widowed very well.” At the beginning of the show, she returns to that dilapidated train station in white furs, her Karl Lagerfeld-esque butler (Tom Nelis) and duo of finely dressed eunuchs (Matthew Deming and Chris Newcomer) in tow.
The bedraggled townspeople are desperate for her money to help revive the economy and Claire is amenable, but on one condition: She wants the life of her former lover, Anton Schell (Roger Rees), who left her years ago for another woman because her father’s store was promised to him. After the initial shock and outrage, the townspeople actually begin to consider the Devil’s bargain.
Like the characters in fairy tales, none of these are explored with much depth. Claire is a one-dimensional character with a single desire — vengeance — and the rest are stock personalities simply responding to the slightly inane, unfortunate circumstances that befall them. A couple playing the teenage Claire and Anton (John Riddle and Michelle Veintimilla) are kept on stage for most of the show in an effort, it seems, to keep the average age of the cast below the cutoff for Social Security eligibility. In fact, other than a lovely pas de deux between Veintimilla and Rivera, it’s not exactly clear why they’re there, except to morosely help wheel around the black coffin that serves as a do-all set piece.
Rivera, for her part, brings a bemused sensibility to the role that provides some much-needed relief. At the age of 82, her continued vivacity is world wonder-worthy. Rees, on the other hand, is about as light as a sack of bricks, and one feels fairly exhausted just watching him. What Rivera lacks in vocal chops these days she makes up for with sheer charisma; Rees has no such saving grace. The music, meanwhile, by the legendary John Kander and Fred Ebb, is far from their strongest work.
The Visit had its debut at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 2001, and with the help of director John Doyle, it was cut down to a single-act version, which premiered at Williamstown Theatre Festival last year. In this Broadway production, there are some moments of levity, but the show is largely a serious, dour endeavor, full of melodramatic ruminations on lost love — “Oh, Clara, if only we could be the way we were again, when we were young and unafraid, if only for an instant!” — and indignant complaints about ancient injustices. While I haven’t seen Dürrenmatt’s original, I can’t help but imagine that the storyline would work much better as a farce with lots more laughs. After all, we are talking about a woman paying an entire town off to kill a man, which is a pretty silly premise really.