WILLIAMSTOWN -- The setting for "The Visit" -- Terrence McNally (book), John Kander (music) and Fred Ebb's (lyrics) admirable, if a bit uneven, musical treatment of a darkly cynical play by Friedrich Dürrenmatt -- is a massive two-story arcade whose columns, pillars and arched glass ceiling recede along one side of the Williamstown Theatre Festival Main Stage into a dark netherworld at the back that will be filled with light in a final scene that redefines the meaning of "happy ending."
There is a pervasive sense of decay, disrepair, neglect. Vines are climbing up the bases of the columns. The glass in the arcade's towering arched ceiling is shattered. This place of shadow and filtered light suggests the faded grandeur of a once elegant grande dame of a railroad terminal. The decay is emblematic of the municipality in which "The Visit" is set -- Brachen, a small once-prosperous town in Europe that has fallen on hard, desperate times.
The villagers' slim hopes for recovery are pinned on the impending visit of Claire Zachanassian, the wealthiest woman in the world, who was driven out of town when she was 18. It is no accident that she is dressed all in white. In the midst of the drab black and earth tones of winter, she is light, hope.
Claire (a chillingly incandescent and moving Chita Rivera) has returned to her hometown a survivor of nine marriages and a series of catastrophes that have left her a blend of flesh, bone and the best limbs and body parts medical science can supply.
But she is deeply and profoundly scarred -- abandoned and cast out by a village that viewed her throughout her youth as an outsider; betrayed by a man, Anton Schell (Roger Rees in an unwelcome self-centered performance) -- vigorous, virile and passionately in love with her -- who left Claire pregnant, discarded her to marry a "respectable" townswoman and then cruelly betrayed her.
Now, Claire has returned to seek justice for the injustices committed against her. In exchange for an obscene fortune she is willing to give the town as a whole and each of its residents individually, she wants Anton's murder, setting in motion a chain reaction that begins with indignant moral outrage and self-righteous rejection of her offer.
This is tough, unsettling, challenging material for a musical. Kander and Ebb tread carefully but purposefully with a score that approaches the edge without, at the same time, releasing its safety net.
Based on Maurice Valency's translation of Dürrenmatt's play, McNally has crafted a faithful book that works hard at integrating a Kander & Ebb score that encompasses a range of styles that, at the same time, hold within the thematic parameters of the material. One number especially, "Yellow Shoes," catches a snarling irony as the townfolk, Schell's own family among them, indulge in an orgy of credit buying as they anticipate what life in Brachen might be like once again.
No Kander & Ebb show is complete without a star-turn song, a vehicle. Here, that number, "Love and Love Alone," is offered as a rueful introspective recognition and acknowledgment of the one element that has eluded Claire. And as Claire sings, she joins, at one point, with her younger self (an at-once sexy and vulnerable, seductive and playfully in control Michelle Veintimilla) in an affecting, gentle, poignant dance duet that shows us the younger girl in the older woman; something one cannot say about the relationship between John Bambery's magnetic Younger Anton and Rees' overwrought Anton, a man given to intrusive and distracting actorly flourishes and poses, and inauthentic expressions of love for Claire.
McNally, Kander and Ebb have provided the blueprint. Director John Doyle, who is new to this 15-year-old project, has filled it in with masterly theatrical invention and style.
I've not seen the longer original version but it feels to me that Doyle's compression of the show into 90 intermissionless minutes is exactly right. His compression the paradoxical effect of expanding the material by sharpening its focus and plunging deeper into the characters without wasteful flourish or excess.
Doyle's most compelling invention is the creation of Anton and Claire's younger selves and casting Bambery and Veintimilla in the roles.
The spectral Young Claire and Young Anton are a constant presence -- performing together (their duet, "You, You, You," is touching and captivating), separately, with either Claire or Anton, receding into the background but ever watchful; never far removed from the people they have grown into. Veintimilla and Bambery catch the fiery innocence of young love, the unbridled lust of eager and forbidden first love. The effect is haunting.
Doyle also has Ms. Rivera as Claire Zachanassian, a performance that commands attention by virtue of its economy and discipline; its focus and clarity. This is not a woman given to melodramatic grand sweeps or gestures. Rivera's Claire commands authority in the booming gravelly quality of her voice; her dry, devastating, understated cynicism. Even when Claire is standing still, she is formidable.
Claire knows what she wants and how to get it. She is the deeply damaged goods of a culture that viewed outsiders with suspicion and fear. She is beyond feeling contempt. She has defied death, repeatedly; systematically amassed wealth. Wealth is power and power allows Claire to reclaim what she has lost as she moves toward a life in her final years of isolation, peace, lost love regained -- a "happy ending" that comes at horrifying cost. Theater Review
THE VISIT. Book by Terrence McNally. Music by John Kander. Lyrics by Fred Ebb. Based on the play by Friedrich Dürrenmatt; translated by Maurice Valency. Directed by John Doyle; choreographed by Graciela Daniele; music direction and arrangements, David Loud; scenic design, Scott Pask; costume design, Ann Hould Ward; lighting designer, Japhy Weideman; sound design, Dan Moses Schreier; hair & wig design, Paul Huntley; orchestrations, Larry Hochman. Through Aug. 17. Eves.: 7:30 Tue.-Thu.; 8 Fri., Sat. Mats.: 2 Thu., Sun.; 3:30 Sat. Williamstown Theatre Festival, Main Stage, ‘62 Center for Theatre and Dance, 1000 Main St. (Route 2), Williamstown. Tickets: $70.(413) 597-3400; wtfestival.org. 1 hour 33 minutes
Anton Schell Roger Rees
Young Claire Michelle Veintimilla
Young Anton John Bambery
Ottilie (Anton's daughter) Melanie Field
The Mayor David Garrison
The Mayor's Wife Diana DiMarzio
Matilde (Anton's wife) Judy Kuhn
The Doctor Timothy Shew
The Policeman Aaron Ramey
Father Josef Rick Holmes
Karl (Anton's son) Jude McCormick
The Schoolmaster Jason Danieley
Rudi (the Judge) Tom Nelis
Louis Perch Matthew Deming
Jacob Chicken Chris Newcomer
Caire Zachanassian Chita Rivera