UPDATE, Friday A.M.: Corrects production history of Hot l Baltimore in last paragraph.
Outcasts and losers link The Visit and Airline Highway, the two final entries in 2014-2015 Tony Awards sweepstakes (the nominations for this year’s awards will be announced on Tuesday morning). Seeing them — the former is a musical, the latter a play — made me feel as though I’d taken a walking tour of Desolation Row.
John Kander, Fred Ebb and Terrence McNally began working with Chita Rivera (who’d starred in three of their previous shows — Chicago, The Rink and Kiss Of The Spider Woman) on The Visit over 15 years ago. Based on Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1956 pitch-black post-WWII allegory, it’s about Claire Zachanassian, the richest woman in the world, who returns for the first time to the town where she grew up and which is now plunged into an abyss of poverty, despair and financial ruin.
Claire offers the people a deal: She will make the town and every one of its citizens rich beyond their wildest dreams in exchange for the life of Anton Schell (Roger Rees), who done her dirty when they were teenage lovers and who later married the shop owner’s daughter. The townsfolk protest, aghast at the idea — even as they suddenly start buying luxury goods on credit. The outlook for Anton isn’t great.
The Visit has evolved through previous productions in Washington D.C. and Chicago (lyricist Ebb died in 2004; this was the Chicago and Cabaret team’s last work together). Revamped again, it was presented last summer at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in a one-act version staged by John Doyle and choreographer Graciella Daniele. I saw an early performance then and felt that the musical strayed from the play by concentrating on the torch Claire still carries for Anton, in her bizarre fashion, detracting from the story of this half Jewish, half Gypsy heroine bent on avenging not only Anton’s betrayal but her “good” neighbors’ grotesque willingness to excise her from their midst.
I’m happy to report that the show has deepened greatly since that first preview, resulting in a genuinely disturbing show that also will satisfy fans of Rivera, who at 82 can still belt it out to the far reaches of the balcony. At the Lyceum Theatre, Scott Pask’s skeletal set glowers even more ominously (the funereal lighting is by Japhy Weideman). The cast features Mary Beth Peil (The Good Wife) as Anton’s smug wife, and dancers John Riddle and Michelle Veintimilla as young Anton and Claire, swirling through the story. Ann Hould Ward’s costumes are fantastic; a good bit of the plot turns on the sudden popularity of chic, expensive yellow shoes that all the town folk simply must have, and whose appearance spreads like an infection that portends Anton’s fate.
Rivera is an incomparable trouper but I must admit her vocal charms are lost on me. The greater disappointment, however, is Rees, whose singing is simply painful to endure. His Anton is a small, broken man. We would be happy to see just a glimmer of the magnetic boy Anton once was.
Kander’s music has never stopped evolving in its beauty, complexity and breadth, and the melodies here get under your skin even if the lyrics are not up to Ebb’s best. McNally’s compressed book does the job elegantly. I can’t imagine this show appealing to a Broadway audience seeking upbeat thrills, but I’m glad it finally made it here.
The Manhattan Theatre Club has imported Steppenwolf’s production of Lisa D’Amour’s Airline Highway from Chicago to the company’s Broadway flagship, the Friedman Theatre. D’Amour’s play Detroit was an impressive work about the impact of economic crisis on that benighted city. Airline Highway is set in post-Katrina New Orleans, among the sorry denizens of a motel called the Hummingbird that has never seen better times.
The human parade includes a chipper prostitute (Julie White), a flamboyant queen (K. Todd Freeman) named Sissy Na Na, Krista (Carolyn Neff), a pole dancer and, unseen until the end, the dying Miss Ruby (Judith Roberts), retired ecdysiast and den mother whose premature funeral is the evening’s occasion. Such a gathering requires a prodigal to set nerves on edge and reopen old wounds, and here that role is played by Bait Boy (Joe Tippett), former lover of Krista, who returns from his new home in Atlanta with stepdaughter Zoë (Carolyn Braver), who’s conveniently doing a school report on people living on the social margins. Lucky Zoë.
You may as well call this “The Motel New Orleans,” so clearly does it emulate — in theme if not execution — Lanford Wilson’s Hot l Baltimore. I don’t know how the great Wilson play would hold up today; it was so firmly rooted in the culture of another time and place. (Wilson is a touchstone writer for Steppenwolf, which revisited Hot l Baltimore a few seasons back and in the early 1980s presented the similar Balm In Gilead, a legendary production that also ran in New York.) But D’Amour, while clearly sympathetic to her characters, conjures a world too neatly balanced, too eccentric, too oddly wholesome. They’re types, not people. Under Joe Mantello’s expert direction (no one is better at ensemble staging), Airline Highway never reaches the status of powerful Katrina post-mortem it seems to be striving for.