Monday, December 6, 2021

The Visitor: Bland Stand

Ahmad Maksoud, David Hyde Pierce and ensemble in The Visitor. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Tom McCarthy’s 2007 film The Visitor is focused on Walter, a middle-aged economics professor (played memorably by Richard Jenkins), who has withdrawn dramatically since the death of his wife. He teaches material by rote to students whose lack of engagement doesn’t concern him, and his rare personal interactions with them are cold and unsympathetic. (He’s so unengaged in the one course he’s currently teaching that, in mid-semester, he still hasn’t distributed a syllabus.) He secured a course reduction so he can work on a book but the truth is that he’s not writing either. When the chair of his department requires him to deliver a paper at a conference in New York, where he and his wife had a pied-à-terre that he hasn’t used since her passing, he discovers that a seedy agent has rented the space to a young couple, a Syrian drummer named Tarek and a Senegalese craft artist named Zainab. Unexpectedly stirred by their situation and reluctant to send them into the streets, he invites them to stay. Tarek befriends him and teaches him how to play the djembe. When the young man is picked up in the subway on a bogus charge, he’s identified as undocumented and sent to a facility where only Walter can visit him. (Zainab is also an illegal immigrant so her freedom would be endangered if she tried to see him.)

The Visitor is a beautiful little movie about a man, paralyzed by his grief, whose involvement in the lives and troubles of strangers draws him back into life. But this is not a popular time to adapt a story with characters of color, however intricately drawn, in which the protagonist is a white man, so the musical version at the Public, with David Hyde Pierce as Walter, has been the subject of controversy since shortly before it opened. (The show was delayed by Covid; originally it was set to begin performances in the spring of 2020.) First Ari’el Stachel, the Tony-winning actor (for The Band’s Visit) who had been cast as Tarek, objected to being asked to use an accent (as Haaz Sleiman did in the film), since Tarek and his mother fled Syria when he was a child and she raised him in Michigan. Stachel eventually opted to leave the production a week before opening. Then the producers delayed it by a week to enable a series of discussions with the company over the representation of the non-white characters.

Not having read the version of Kwame Kwei-Armah and Brian Yorkey’s book that the musical was rehearsing before Stachel’s departure or having heard any of the score by Yorkey (lyrics) and Tom Kitt (music) beforehand, I have no way of knowing what kind of changes they incorporated as a result of these discussions. What I can report is that though the ninety-five-minute musical conjures up some charm and humor in the first third, it loses its shape and turns preachy – precisely what McCarthy’s movie (which he wrote as well as directed) is not. The writers pile on layers of melodrama. Zainab (Alysha Deslorieux) has been given a number – “Zainab’s Song (Bound for America)” – about being raped on the boat from Africa. Tarek and the ensemble of illegal immigrants being held in the facility sing “Heart in Your Hands,” about the conditions of the facility in which they’ve been incarcerated. Almost the entire second act plays like an uninspired imitation of Brecht with the unwelcome – and, of course, distinctly un-Brechtian – addition of sentimentality. And the music isn’t much of an improvement on the bald, pedantic lyrics. Even the introduction of Tarek’s mother, Mouna (Jacqueline Antaramian), doesn’t do much to vary the palette. In McCarthy’s movie she and Walter share an unanticipated romantic interlude, but it’s been excised here, as if it might shine too much attention on Walter’s trajectory.

Pierce marches through the show purposefully, but it’s rather a bland performance. He has a slight voice, but as the cop with a crush on show business in the 2007 musical Curtains he showed what a fine actor who’s a non-singer can do with a good song like the lament of the lonely policeman, “Coffee Shop Nights.” The tunes Kitt and Yorkey have thrown his way, especially “What Little I Can Do” and “Better Angels” (which substitutes for Jenkins’s best scene in the film, where he vainly protests the treatment of human beings like Tarek in an inhumane system), don’t give him much room or depth. He’s stuck playing the sincerity card because he hasn’t drawn anything better. And Ahmad Maksoud, the understudy who picked up the role of Tarek after Stachel’s exit, is competent but lacks personality. The scenes between these two characters are the core of the drama, but the two actors have little rapport. It should be said, however, that the veteran director Daniel Sullivan has staged the musical well against an effective spare set by David Zinn and a striking lighting design by Japhy Weideman.

The night I saw The Visitor, the audience cheered and rushed to its feet. But it was impossible to tell how much of their enthusiasm was an understandable excitement at being back in a live theatre after twenty months of forced absence and how much was a Pavlovian response to a musical that sprays virtue at the audience like mace.

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 Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies

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