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Theatre in Review: The Visitor (Public Theater)

Ahmad Maksoud, David Hyde Pierce. Photo : Joan Marcus

The Visitor is a highly unusual case, a musical that seems to be constantly questioning its right to exist. Everyone involved seems to be wondering if a format that lends itself to big moments and grand gestures can effectively handle an intimate, emotionally muted story based in frustration and disappointment. When it sticks to examining its characters' broken hearts, it is compelling, less so in numbers that sounds like op-eds set to music. Indeed, it stumbles most when it loses confidence, turning to loudly trumpeting its good intentions.

Kwame Kwei-Armah and Brian Yorkey's book, taken from Tom McCarthy's 2007 film -- which earned an Oscar nomination for Richard Jenkins -- begins with Walter, an aging, Connecticut-based academic who, following the death of his wife, has fallen through an emotional trap door. Numb with grief, he goes through the motions of his life, teaching economics to bored undergrads and pretending to work on a book that doesn't really exist. His life is transformed, however, when, visiting the pied-à-terre keeps in New York, he finds it occupied by Tarek, a young musician and his girlfriend Zainab, a jewelry designer.

Possibly because the show was significantly cut during previews -- it went from two acts to an intermissionless 90 minutes -- the early scenes of exposition are a bit garbled. Tarek and Zainab have apparently been swindled by a third party who claimed to own Walter's place, a point that is immediately dropped, largely because the couple is so keen to avoid the police. Walter, a kind soul at heart, lets them stay for the night, unwittingly opening the door to a deepening involvement in their lives. Fair enough, but wouldn't he wonder who is handing out the keys to his apartment? What New Yorker wouldn't want this situation resolved, ASAP?

One scene later, Walter, bored stiff at economics conference, dwells on the lovers and their plight. "The two of them seem fearless," he sings, "And burning with their youth/With passion and truth and desire." At this point, for all we know, it may all be true, but we haven't gotten to know Tarek and Zainab yet, and Walter's fascination with them seems oddly misplaced; the story is moving ahead without us, unwisely confident that we are onboard with its message.

Such problems might be easily fixed but they point to a central problem with The Visitor: Rather than letting us discover the characters through their actions, it too often tells us what to think. It takes a sharp turn for the better when Tarek introduces Walter to his instrument, the djembe, an African percussion instrument, taking him to a drum circle in Central Park where he experiences a long-lost feeling of communion. Returning home via the subway, however, a minor misunderstanding with the police leads to Tarek's arrest, a disaster since he is an illegal immigrant -- his undocumented parents brought him to Michigan when he was a small boy - and soon he is in the hands of ICE, facing deportation.

Although Walter hires a lawyer to work every legal angle on Tarek's behalf, The Visitor is not a show to hold out false hope. Instead, the action follows Walter's ever-increasing devotion to Tarek's case; his rather more complicated relationship with Zainab, whose trust in men has been shattered by past sexual exploitation; and his growing infatuation with Mouna, Tarek's mother, who arrives from Detroit, eager to be of help, despite her own precarious status. Walter's deepening love for them all is wedded to a terrible feeling of helplessness as the impenetrable immigration bureaucracy grinds on; not for nothing do he and Mouna share a duet titled "What Little I Can Do."

The songs -- music by Tom Kitt, lyrics by Yorkey -- soar when they catch the characters in revelatory moments. "Drum Circle" celebrates the twin ecstasies of music-making and belonging to a community. "World Between Two Worlds" nails Tarek's no-win situation -- being raised as an American but treated by the government as an alien from a country he doesn't remember. "Such Beautiful Music" delicately introduces the subject of Walter's grief when Mouna plays a CD of piano music. (His wife, a professional musician, left behind many recordings.) Other numbers are loaded with speechmaking, ramming home points that have already been made evident. These include "Lady Liberty," in which Zainab and Mouna note, redundantly, that a certain statue in the harbor isn't living up to its reputation. Walter's eleven o'clock number, "Better Angels," turns seriously sententious with lyrics like, "For we were born in revolution/And we were built on rights of men/When we fight, we say, for freedom/Will we know freedom once again?" It sounds like something cut from the out-of-town tryout of 1776.

Daniel Sullivan's staging -- which is unusually seamless and fast moving considering that he rarely, if ever, does musicals -- is gifted with four excellent leads. David Hyde Pierce, who has made a career out of characters with more intellectual than social skills, fills Walter with a profound sadness; this is a performance built on eloquent silences. Ahmad Maksoud, who took over the role of Tarek late in the production process, is a charismatic presence with a soaring voice and a tender, nuanced manner. Alysha Deslorieux has the toughest assignment as Zainab, but she illuminates the strong feelings behind her guarded demeanor. Jacqueline Antaramian brings a natural radiance to Mouna, her tremendous dignity and charm belying the responsibility she feels for her part in Tarek's plight.

David Zinn's sensible set design surrounds the action in what looks like corrugated metal walls; they are, in fact, made of scrim, allowing Japhy Weideman's lighting and the projections by David Bengali and Hana S. Kim (of subways, parks, and streetscapes) to repeatedly transform the space. Zinn also provides various interiors, most notably Walter's apartment, Tarek's detention center, and one of those generic hotel ballrooms where seminars are held. Toni-Leslie James' costumes demonstrate her sharp eye for the nuances of character. The sound design by Jessica Paz and Sun Hee Kim is thoroughly clear and intelligible, aided, no doubt, by Jamshied Sharifi's orchestrations.

Despite its problems, The Visitor manages a touching finale that finds Walter alone, playing the drums, this time out of fury at an immigration system that destroys lives rather than guaranteeing security. The show makes the argument that in denying citizenship to so many, we are denying ourselves -- of energy, creativity, passion; it's a proposition in which everyone loses. If only The Visitor consistently let its story speak for itself, it would be many times more powerful. --David Barbour


(5 November 2021)

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