Monday, August 11, 2014

The Visit as a Musical, Design for Living as a Drawing Room Drama

Chita Rivera (right) in The Visit. (Photo: Paul Fox)

The musical based on Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit currently on the mainstage at Williamstown – book by Terrence McNally, songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb – has been floating around for years. The Goodman Theatre in Chicago produced it successfully in 2001 and the critically acclaimed production was set to go to Broadway, but those plans were cancelled in the aftermath of 9/11. The Public Theatre was supposed to mount it in 2003 but financing fell through; it was staged in Arlington, Virginia in 2008 but the only chance New Yorkers have had to see it was in a concert version in 2011. (Ebb died in 2004.) So most musical theatre buffs have only heard about The Visit and perhaps followed its tortuous journey through the years. Chita Rivera has always been attached in the leading role of Claire Zachanassian, the richest woman in the world, who returns to her poverty-stricken home town and offers to donate an astronomical sum to resurrect it, contingent on the public execution of her old lover (called Anton Schell in the musical), who abandoned her and her baby and blackened her reputation. (The role was written for Angela Lansbury, who withdrew from the original production when her husband died.) The current version, directed by John Doyle and choreographed by Graciela Daniele, is a full-length one-act with a pared-down ensemble of sixteen.

I’ve always been intrigued by this venture. A dark, expressionistic fable about the inescapability of the past and human susceptibility to greed and conformity, The Visit doesn’t seem like a likely choice for adaptation to the musical stage, and I wondered how McNally might have altered it. The answer is: hardly at all, though he certainly deserves credit for slimming it down and reshaping it as a libretto without diluting its sinister power. It is, I think, a brilliant musical, and it boasts one of Kander and Ebb’s best and most evocative scores.

The main change is in the section that, in Dürrenmatt’s 1956 original, constituted the second of three acts. The play is a marvel of dramatic structure. In act one, Claire presents her proposition to the town at a reception at (appropriately enough) The Golden Apostle, the town’s leading hotel in its glory days. The mayor, on behalf of the citizenry, turns her down with indignant outrage; “I’ll wait,” she announces. In act two, the attitude of the town changes toward Ill (as he’s called in the original) – a leading citizen – who wronged her, and while continuing to insist that they would never betray him, they elect to read Claire’s offer as more dramatic than literal, a way of publicizing her scandalous treatment. Meanwhile, they frequent the shop run by Ill and his wife, making exorbitant purchases on account. Increasingly fearful for his life, Ill runs from the mayor to the police chief to the priest for counsel and protection and finds that each of them, too, has upgraded his lifestyle and his office. Panicked, he tries to get out of town, but the townspeople have gathered at the train station and he can’t leave. “I am lost,” he cries as the second-act curtain falls. In act three, he comes to accept his fate, even as his neighbors, having made their pact with the devil, move from economic to moral destitution. “The check,” Madame Zachanassian proclaims, as she leaves town with Ill’s corpse in the coffin she’s brought with her. (“I’ll wait”; “I am lost”; “The check” – the curtain lines describe the entire arc of the play.) In the musical, the second act has been boiled down to one superb number, “Yellow Shoes” – an allusion to the brand-new article of clothing that symbolizes their accession to Claire’s hellish bargain – followed by the scene at the train station. If you love the play (as I do), you might miss Schell’s encounters with each of the burghers and the escalating mood of impending doom, but it’s a smart choice. In his legendary 1926 production of Gogol’s The Government Inspector the Russian innovator Meyerhold excised the scenes in which each of the representatives of a corrupt town offers a bribe to the visitor they mistakenly believe to be a government inspector and substituted a single stage image: a series of adjacent doors opens slightly, each revealing a hand holding out bank notes. In its withering dramatic economy, “Yellow Shoes” is reminiscent of Meyerhold’s innovation.

Tom Nelis, Rivera & Christopher Newcomer (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)
Though I said that McNally, Kander and Ebb haven’t altered Dürrenmatt’s play, they have shifted the focus. The musical is about death – the death of youthful hope and ideals, the death of young love. Claire has outlived several rich husbands (that’s how she accumulated her staggering fortune) but she’s also, in a sense, outlived herself, surviving several terrible accidents and emerging from one surgery after another with plastic parts in place of flesh and bone. Dürrenmatt’s idea was to present her as post-human, an unkillable (her word) monster who mirrors back to the townspeople their most inhuman impulses and capitalizes on them. Her bearing of the corpse of her one-time lover to Capri, where she can entomb herself with it, is a perversion of the idea of love that never dies. The musical presents her quite differently – as tragic rather than monstrous. The writers have added two characters, the ghosts of the young Anton (John Bambery) and the young Claire (Michelle Veintimilla), who hover about the action. The idea, borrowed from Sondheim’s Follies, is extremely effective; it mixes the tones of the original (ironic, black-comic) with melancholy. The musical doesn’t soften the Dürrenmatt, but McNally and Kander and Ebb do humanize it somewhat. And they give Rivera’s performance somewhere to go. Her scenes with Roger Rees as Schell have a desiccated delicacy that isn’t quite like anything I can remember seeing – Rees does fine, subtle work – and she gets to sing the most beautiful ballad in the score, “Winter.” Plus she has a marvelous dance duet with Veintimilla – who, for narrative reasons, has to carry most of its choreographic burden. Rivera made her bones, of course, as a dancer as well as a singer; she was West Side Story’s first Anita. Nearly forty years ago I saw her as Velma in the premiere Broadway production of Kander and Ebb's Chicago, playing opposite Gwen Verdon and Jerry Orbach, and she was sensational. (All three were.) The history of her career makes her role as a woman whose body is no longer her own, and especially the pas de deux with a graceful young ballerina, where she mimes the steps that she can no longer leap into, very poignant. I don’t mean to suggest that the role makes an excuse for Rivera’s inability to dance the way she did in 1957 or 1975; her performance here needs no excuse.

In Doyle’s production, the entire ensemble is on stage constantly. Dramatically and especially musically, it’s a workout, and the entire cast, as well as the musical director/conductor, David Loud and his superb nine-member band, are up to it. (The sumptuous harmonies, with their minor-key glitter, a trademark of John Kander’s, sometimes seem to reach back to Franz Léhar and other times to Kander’s favorite inspiration, Kurt Weill.) The company includes some highly accomplished veterans, like Jason Danieley as the schoolmaster (who triumphs with “The Only One,” the most challenging song in the score), David Garrison as the mayor, Judy Kuhn as Schell’s embittered wife Matilde, and Rick Holmes as the priest. They’re joined by Melanie Field and Jude McCormick as Anton’s grown-up children, Timothy Shew as the doctor, Aaron Ramey as the constable and Diana Dimarzio as the mayor’s wife, all excellent, as are Veintimilla and Bambery as the ghosts. The musical captures the style of the original play when Tom Nelis appears as Claire’s butler and Matthew Deming and Chris Newcomer as her eunuchs, in black and white formal dress but with the first telltale lemon-yellow shoes. Their “Eunuchs’ Testimony” at the Golden Apostle is supremely creepy, a vaudeville number that is simultaneously a death’s-head masque.

Daniele’s work here is impeccable, especially on “Yellow Shoes,” which the ensemble performs as a soft-shoe on black suitcases at the edge of the stage. Scott Pask’s set, a double-tiered stone structure with pillars overgrown with vines and a shattered skylight, is majestic yet dilapidated. (It’s the train station, though all the scenes are played on it.) Both Japhy Weideman’s lighting and Ann Hould Ward’s costumes are admirable; I was struck particularly by the dusty patches of color that Ward uses to punctuate the otherwise monochromatic look of her designs.

One element of Dürrenmatt’s play falls out, perhaps inevitably. It was one of the two 1950s masterpieces of the European stage – the other was Max Frisch’s The Firebugs – to invent metaphors for the insidious ascension of the Nazis. In the musical Claire is part Jew, part gypsy, which is why the town found it so easy to look down on her and her family before she bore Schell’s child and so easy to call her a whore afterwards. But if she belongs to two minorities Hitler despised, then obviously she can’t be an emblem of Nazism. I don’t think this is a problem, especially since Kander and Ebb had already written the great Brechtian musical about the rise of the Nazis, Cabaret. Denuded of that layer of meaning, the musical of The Visit doesn’t risk being seen as a retread of Kander and Ebb’s most famous achievement. I hope The Visit does make it, finally, to New York – not only because it should be seen by more people but also because this rich score demands to be recorded.

Ariana Venturi and Tom Pecinka in Design For Living

Noël Coward’s 1932 Design for Living is one of the great plays of the twentieth century – even more daring and more astonishing than his Private Lives. Both are high comedies in which the brittle, epigrammatic style deftly conceals the anguish of the characters, whose unorthodox behavior is less a rebellion against the deadening pretentions of their society than an expression of their inescapable nature. Amanda and Elyot, the ex-spouses in Private Lives who run off together during their honeymoons to other people, and Gilda, Otto and Leo, the young free spirits bound together intellectually, philosophically, emotionally and sexually in an unbreakable trio, are damaged beyond repair and seem fated to make each other eternally miserable, but Coward makes them the subjects of comedies rather than tragedies. (That’s pretty much the definition of modern high comedy: for some outstanding cinematic examples, see Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night, Hal Ashby’s Shampoo, and Enemies, A Love Story by the recently deceased – and much missed – Paul Mazursky.)

The production of Design for Living by Berkshire Theatre Group, directed by Tom Story, isn’t very good, for two key reasons: casting and tone. Coward wrote the play for himself and the Lunts, who were at the peak of their fabled theatrical careers; Alfred Lunt was forty and Lynn Fontanne was forty-three, though by theatrical convention stars often got away with playing characters far younger than they were in fact. (Bette Davis, as Margo Channing, one of these immortal entities in the movie All About Eve, has to face up to her terror that, at forty, she may finally be too old to persuade audiences in an ingénue role.) But the idea is that Otto the aspiring painter, Leo the aspiring playwright, and Gilda, their intellectual guide and kindred spirit, are thirty-somethings – perhaps Coward’s age when he wrote the play, thirty-three. Story has cast Yale Drama School students in all three of the roles as well as in the pivotal supporting character of Ernest – the fastidious, humorless art dealer whom Gilda, dashing headlong into conventionality in a fruitless effort to escape the exhausting life she leads with Leo and Otto, marries between acts two and three. The youthfulness of Ariana Venturi (Gilda), Chris Geary (Otto) and Tom Pecinka (Leo) fits with their characters’ bohemianism. The actors work very hard, and all three seem to be talented, especially Venturi; their careful work with the perilously difficult language confers credit on their Yale training. (Paul Cooper, who plays Ernest, may also be talented, but in this case the miscasting is painful; stiff and uncomfortable, he wears the role like a set of handcuffs. With that slender, line-drawn body, he should be playing a clown, say Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night.) The problem is that they’re too young to be as convincingly sophisticated or world-weary as Coward has written these parts.

Chris Geary, Ariana Venturi and Tom Pecinka
For many years, Otto and Leo were played as heterosexual; Gilda bounces back and forth between them, and each time she switches partners, the discarded swain reacts like a betrayed lover, even though the other two struggle to convince him that sex is an inevitable consequence of their mutual love for one another. At the end, all three have stopped struggling and wound up together, and clearly we’re meant to guess that means in a ménage à trois, because no other arrangement could possibly suit them. (Though their promised happiness, like that of Amanda and Elyot when they run off together for the second time at the end of Private Lives, can only be brief because they don’t have it in them to be happy for very long; they’re too hyper-conscious, too over-cultivated, and they have to continue to live in a world where they’ll always be misfits.) Post-Stonewall productions of the play tend to make the two men overtly bisexual, and that’s OK, though you miss the surprise of the implied ending if you play it that way. (Maybe, in the twenty-first century, it’s too late for the ending to be much of a surprise.) In this version, Otto and Leo kiss at the end of act two, after Gilda has abandoned both of them, as if they’d just discovered a new sexual possibility, and it’s a good joke; it makes for a nice curtain. But Geary and Pecinka play the men as gay from the outset, and by the time they wind up at Ernest and Gilda’s Manhattan apartment in act three – the play moves from Paris to London to New York – they’re really queening it up. So you don’t really believe that either of them could ever have been sexually interested in Gilda. Obviously I don’t mean to suggest that men who sleep with other men can’t also sleep with women; in Coward’s play, sexuality is fluid and determined chiefly by other factors (camaraderie, vision of the world, passion for life). But the two actors’ style choice seems wrong for the structure of the play.

The other problem is that the show isn’t funny enough. The three principals act way too strenuously, investigating every little mood shift, and while you have to admire all this close textual work, they lose the high-comic style, which is light and airy, belying the sorrow underneath. The result is drawing-room drama, which is considerably less interesting in every way than the complex comedy of manners Coward created. Pecinka and Geary play the end of act two, where Leo and Otto get roaring drunk after Gilda’s departure, for comedy, but Story and the two actors don’t come close to the kind of comedy Coward wrote for it; they go for knockabout farce, and the results are clumsy and misbegotten. (The scene seems to go on for an eternity.) The same can be said for everything Story does with Molly Heller as the maid, Miss Hodge, whose boogieing to the music is a not-too-bright idea for covering the scene changes. I don’t blame Heller, who is one of the acting apprentices; the director should have known better.

Scenic designer Reid Thompson uses a few accents (mostly the paintings on the walls) to solve the problem of evoking three different urban environments on a regional-theatre budget; it’s clever, and it sketches in the upward mobility of the characters, who are struggling artists in act one, newly successful in act two, and – in Gilda’s case – nouveau riche in act three. I liked Hunter Kaczorowski’s costumes, especially for Gilda, though perhaps Jillian Hannah, who plays Gilda and Ernest’s socialite friend Grace Torrence, is too young for the outfit he’s put her in. But then, the actress is too young to play an established society queen. (All the third-act party guests are played by apprentices.) Finally, if it was the sound designer, Steve Brush, who found the music, he should be commended. It consists of period tunes, as might be expected, but what distinguishes the selections is that they’re French during the pre-show, British in the first intermission, and American in the second. That’s a nice touch.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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