KANDER AND EBB REVISIT THE VISIT – THIS TIME, IT’S A LOVE STORY

Part of the Williamstown Theatre Festival
Review by Robert Gulack

Again and again, humanity is snapped down in a steel mousetrap fashioned of our own greed. One by one, the townspeople raise their hands, agreeing to sell their consciences for money, and, as they do, a horrible clang rings out, again and again. After that, we hear a delicate love ballad twisted into a nightmare, and then, a tearing, soul-freezing howl of noise as the town is bathed in blood money.

In these moments, Larry Hochman’s orchestrations deliver the full measure of what Friedrich Durrenmatt wanted his play, THE VISIT, to be – a searing indictment of humanity. How easy we find it, when the price is right, to do things we know are wrong! How brief the process of finding a way to justify ourselves to ourselves – how short the moment before we have totally forgotten our sins!

There are many other things to cheer in this new musical adaptation of THE VISIT, created by John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Terrence McNally, and directed by John Doyle for the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Kander’s music is both touching and tuneful throughout, and it is wonderful to see Chita Rivera, in her eighties, command the stage with such vigor and authority. Like Ms. Rivera’s emasculated servants in the play, who have clearly succumbed to Stockholm syndrome and can’t imagine life without her, we, too, would want nothing more than to stay with Ms. Rivera forever.

Staring Away Into Darkness

Then, too, there is Scott Pask’s set, which delivers the entire essence of the play from the audience’s first glance. At once awesome and spooky, it is a vast framework spiraling away forever into an infinite gloomy darkness. What once were skylights in a train station have become splintered frames filled only with broken glass. A torn, uneven lip of old and dusty floor tiles protrudes toward the audience. As the man-made train station has decayed, nature has begun to reclaim it, ivy crawling up the columns. Half natural and half not, it is as weird a combination as the aged billionairess played by Ms. Rivera, who strides into town on an artificial leg and waves an imperious artificial arm to claim her lethal revenge. “I’m unkillable,” she informs us with blunt self-confidence, and, indeed, few things appear harder to get rid of than our species’ insistence on vengeance.

While Pask’s train station is unforgettable, however, I am not persuaded by the choice this production made in having no other scenery. Doyle and Pask, after the opening moments, stage everything on various piles of the billionairess’ black suitcases, and I eventually found that strategy both monotonous and a little opaque. When the show begins with the cast walking off with the billionairess’ suitcases, the visual image seems to contradict the basic plot of the play, which is the town trying to figure out how to get their hands on the old lady’s stuff. Didn’t we just see them do that?

Since the revenge the old lady seeks is rooted in a love affair from decades before, it was effective to have the play haunted, from the beginning, by the ghosts of the two young lovers. (Michelle Veintimilla was gorgeous and vulnerable as the young version of Ms. Rivera’s billionairess.) A very catchy number, “Yellow Shoes,” portrays the growing complicity of the townspeople. But I was less impressed by the way other things were handled. The old lady shows up with a huge black coffin, but no one in town responds to the sight of it. She openly proclaims that her servants are eunuchs. This, too, doesn’t seem to stir any alarm or even interest in those hearing about it. In the second half of the twentieth-century, or later, how many people showed up in Europe with an entourage of eunuchs?

Ms. Rivera has an effective song summing up, verse by verse, her long list of munificent but short-lived spouses. But the song used to introduce the town’s growing hypocrisy, a less than winning number entitled “Back and Forth”, should be reconsidered. Since the moment involves people, one by one, learning from each other and repeating a phony moral justification for what they’re about to do, perhaps the composer should consider whether a fugue might be more appropriate.

A Very Special Love Story, Indeed

The most serious error made by this version of the material, however, is the insistence of the creators that the old lady seriously and sincerely loves the man she is murdering, and he seriously and sincerely loves her back throughout the protracted process of being murdered by her. If such a choice could ever work, it would have to be the entire subject of the evening, and the details as to how you can truly love someone who is killing you (for revenge!) would have to be convincingly dramatized. Roger Rees, playing the condemned former lover, is the performer who is, in this production, given the virtually impossible task of playing that emotion. Rees is quite charming in presenting, for example, his elderly character’s pride in his former sexual prowess, but he can’t sell the contradictions that the creators of this musical have foisted on him.

THE VISIT, as envisaged by Durrenmatt, it seems, was too cold for Kander, Ebb, and McNally – it had to become a love story. This blurs both the beginning and the ending of the material. At the top of the show, when the former lover is trying desperately to be charming to the aged billionairess, in order to win her money for the impoverished town, and she is confessing her list of artificial appendages, there is supposed to be a black comedy in watching Rees’ character try to cover up how grossed out he is. For the moment, he is a gigolo who cannot allow himself to be distracted by his horror at the thought of false limbs. (The repeated confession of one non-natural member after another would make a fine series of verses in a patter number. It goes unmusicalized here.) But if Rees’ character loves the old lady again from the moment he comes back into contact with her, he is never a hypocritical gigolo, but simply a devout admirer. The comedy vanishes.

At the end of the show, the constant attempt to portray the old lady as loving the man she’s murdering distracts us from Durrenmatt’s point. If the resolution of this plot is now to be taken as some kind of TRISTAN-UND-ISOLDE-like love/death, then their deaths are, in some sense, a good thing. And if their deaths are, in some sense, good, then the horror of what the town has brought themselves to do becomes beside the point. The townspeople may have sold themselves for money, but it turns out maybe that wasn’t so bad. True love has, after all, found its way. (McNally has compared the plot of THE VISIT to ROMEO AND JULIET, but there is a world of difference between two lovers separated by warring families and two lovers who become separated when he abandons her and then slanders her in court.) The triumph of true love is, of course, nothing like what Durrenmatt had in mind. Bringing true love into THE VISIT is as out of place as it would have been had Sweeney Todd been all romantic over Mrs. Lovett, or Mack the Knife swooned over Pirate Jenny. But I will not soon forget Kander’s luminous melodies, or the sad, foreboding twang of the zither echoing from the orchestra pit.

THE VISIT by Terrence McNally, John Kander, and Fred Ebb, based on the play by Friedrich Durrenmatt as translated by Maurice Valency, directed by John Doyle, and presented at the Williamstown Theatre Festival.

ROBERT GULACK holds an MFA in Playwriting from the Yale School of Drama, where he studied with Mamet and Kopit. He is the author of numerous plays seen in NYC, including CHURCHILL IN ATHENS, SIX HUSBANDS OF ELIZABETH THE QUEEN, and the award-winning ONE THOUSAND AND ONE.

Warp Speed: Phasers less than Stunning

Warp Speed as part of the Midtown International Theatre Festival
Review by Sander Gusinow

If there’s one good thing to say about ‘Warp Speed: a Sci Fi Parody’ it’s the innovate small-space choreography of Christopher Noffke. Sadly, finding a second good thing to say about this chaotic misfire proves a tall intergalactic order.

Loosely based around an episode of ‘Star Trek’ the crew onboard the ‘Starship Interstellar’ plunge into peril when an electrical storm endows two members of the ship with deadly psychic capabilities. The parody is insipidly surface-level. Collin Kessler can’t scratch the surface of a good William Shatner impression. Jokes about the genre that could be ironic, such as objectification of the female actors, strike an uncomfortable chord. (said one audience member in the lavatory: ‘Are they just gonna grab her breasts all night?) Only Justin Ivan Brown, who parodies the awkwardly-ship-loving Scottie, gives the giggles a parody ought to provide.

Warp Speed lacks both wit and love for the source material needed to make it soar. A Star Trek fan will be undoubtedly disappointed as the script lazily exploits Star Wars, Firefly, and other Sci Fi classics for a cheap laugh. The humor whiffs constantly, too dulled-down for the genuine Sci Fi crowd and too referential for the rest of us. The bulk of the jokes are bawdy physical affairs too gratuitous for children, too dopey for adults. Gregory Sullivan (parodying Mr. Chekhov) does best with the physical comedy, but mostly because of his ability to walk on his hands and eat inedible objects.

It’s easy to forget ‘Warp Speed’ is a musical. The carelessly-written lyrics neither rhyme well nor advance the story. The melodies are occasionally bouncy but overall languid and repetitive. The songs ‘Warp Speed’ aren’t hit or miss, per se, more a mix of tolerable and annoying. A song about ESP is the most bearable of the bunch, but it comes early, and leads to miss after musical miss.

As our culture’s obsession with nerd-dom continues in its stride, this uninspired parody seems more an attempt to capitalize on a trend than a genuine love letter to genre. Geeks beware: ‘Warp Speed’ is warped indeed.

“Eddie”
Reviewed by Mary Ann Randazzo

I was looking forward to seeing “Eddie,” one of the performances at the Midtown Festival about a hard-of-hearing boy bullied by a classmate, because of my love for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. I know the struggles this culture has with the hearing world and how hearing impaired children/teenagers are bullied by those who are ignorant to the fact having a hearing loss isn’t really a disability – the disability is for those who are fearful of not knowing about the culture.

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Unfortunately, the performance wasn’t what I expected. I was disappointed that Eddie, played by Yair Ben-Dor, didn’t appear to be hard-of-hearing. The cast members spoke to Eddie in his bad ear, spoke to him while his back was turned, turned away from him while speaking, all the while Eddie responded. These are things you do not do to a person who is hearing impaired. This should have been caught while rehearsing the play, although some audience members not familiar with people who are hard-of –hearing wouldn’t have noticed, I did. If you’re going to write a play about a disability, then my guess would be to understand the disability.

In addition, the scenes with Eddie’s friend Linda (which made no sense to me) could have been cut out and spent more time delving into Eddie’s bully then turned “pal”, Greg played by Jacob Banser, in which the audience would have understood the fascination he had with Eddie and his own fears of his newly discovered disability.

Dear Eddie, Thanks for the Memories!

“Eddie and the Palaceades”
Part of the Midtown International Theatre Festival
reviewed by Mary Ann Randazzo

What fun the audience had especially for those born of the Baby Boomer generation longing for the good old days and realizing it’s never too late to dream! This was definitely the theme “Eddie and the Palaceades” demonstrated with so much energy, laughter and a touching moment where I found my eyes welled with tears from the heart-touching song “I Miss My Wife.”

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Kudos to Shelly Valfer, the unlikeable Mayor, though short on vocals but full of comic relief along with his three Aldermen created roars of laughter. The cast did an amazing job keeping the audience engrossed while the stage crew expertly and flawlessly changed scenes.

Thanks to the playwright/lyricist Roy O’Neil for being an exemplary model that you’re never too old to do what you love and to have a dream come true. This show was unquestionably two hours of pure enjoyment!

Roman Fever: Short but Very Sweet

Review by Ashley Hutchinson

MITF-XV 300dpiThe beginning of Ken Kruper’s Roman Fever seemed very reminiscent of Adam Guettal’s Light in the Piazza, however only in a nostalgic way. The premises of both stories are really quite different, yet driven from the same place of misguided motherly affection and young love. Regardless of the similarities of theme, Kruper’s book and lyrics did not prove stale: the plot follows two older women revisiting Rome with their two 20-something daughters, and as the two daughters explore, the mothers, old friends for some time, begin to realize that the events that had occurred in Rome some 20 years earlier had not quite been what they had remembered. Culminating with a final number with the tagline “That’s not how I remembered it,” I got the hidden agendas and the hidden desires of each of the characters. In the end, the acting was just fine, and the singing was even better; the thing that seemed to inhibit this production was the black box setting. Had a little more thought been put in to the staging and design of the piece, this musical could have taken wild leaps from MITF to NYMF to something bigger.

When the two older ladies first appeared onstage, their costumes were ambiguous as to if this was the 1940s, 50s, or even 60s, because once the two daughters, Jenny and Barbara, arrived they seemed very much from the present. This gap in generations could very well have been on purpose, as the feel of the piece seemed like a timeless Woody Allen film, just without the offbeat humor. The music was ultimately what made the piece, if perhaps a little confusing at times with the plot: the musical was a very short 30 minutes, which would have worked had the plot elements not had to cover so much ground in such a short amount of time.

At the end, I wondered if perhaps the musical would later be expanded, given the piece seemed not to embrace it’s workshop-y elements; mainly, the underdeveloped space. Some of the blocking choices proved to have rather interesting beginnings, such as when the daughters were making their way around Rome and the two older women sat stagnant at a café table in the middle of the space, seeming to reveal the older women, stuck in the past and the two daughters moving throughout the present. However, the rules of this convention could have been made clearer.

All in all, it was a very romantic piece, and seemed to harken back to the feel of many great pieces out there. With a little bit more development, Roman Fever has the ability to expand into it’s own and I am very excited to see if it adds its own distinct comment to the beautiful worlds of Guettal and Allen.