The Williamstown Theatre Festival isn’t exactly the straw hat circuit — unless you count the likes of Sam Rockwell, Blythe Danner and Bradley Cooper in seasonal mufti during their off hours at the Tunnel City Cafe. Instead, the WTF (don’t think the popularization of those three letters is lost on the marketing folks up there in the Berkshires; they’ve made WTF Is Going On the company mantra) has become a place where first-string Hollywood and New York talent comes to try out new work or shine in classy revivals that frequently end up on Broadway. That was the case with last year’s big tryout, Jason Robert Brown and Marsha Norman’s musical adaptation of The Bridges Of Madison County. In the fall, Cooper will reprise on Broadway the festival revival of The Elephant Man that he led in 2012.
With that in mind, I headed up to see the latest buzz-generating productions, a revival of Sam Shepard‘s killer romance, Fool For Love starring Rockwell and Nina Arianda, and The Visit, a musical adaptation by John Kander, Fred Ebb and Terrence McNally of the play by Friedrich Durrenmatt.
Rockwell and Arianda were last-minute replacements for Chris Pine and Lauren Ambrose in the Shepard play, a one-act set in a crummy motel room near the Mojave Desert where push-me, pull-you lovers May (Arianda) and Eddie (Rockwell) work out their commitment issues. You doubtless remember that Robert Altman made the 1984 film version with Shepard and Kim Basinger as the very physical couple, who are also half-siblings.
Arianda made a sensational debut off and then on Broadway in Venus In Fur, for which she ought to have gotten the film role that went to director Roman Polanski’s wife, Emmanuelle Seigner. I’m here to tell you that notwithstanding the good reviews for that film, Arianda would have burned up the screen in it.
There’s much talk of bringing the show to Broadway, but I would think twice about that: Fool For Love demands a visceral, believable intimacy between the two actors that threatens to turn violent without actually doing so. Arianda and Rockwell are similarly wiry and physical but while terrific in their own right, they never connect in Daniel Aukin’s oddly tentative production. Better are Gordon Joseph Weiss as “The Old Man,” Eddie and May’s cranky, spectral father (the great Harry Dean Stanton in the movie) offering commentary, and Christopher Abbott as the suitor who wants to save May. Here, she hardly needs saving.
At 81, Chita Rivera can still belt it outta the ballpark and her presence in The Visit is nothing short of an astonishment. She plays imperious Claire Zachanassian, the impossibly rich widow who returns to her tiny European backwater to strike a deal with the good citizens who are mired in poverty and hard times: I’ll save the town and make all your dreams come true, she pledges, in return for the life of Anton Schell, the rat who done me wrong so many years ago.
In Durrenmatt’s caustic 1956 play, the townsfolk are aghast at the idea — even as they suddenly start buying luxury goods on credit. It doesn’t look good for Anton. Composer Kander, lyricist Ebb (Cabaret, Chicago) and book writer McNally (Kander & Ebb’s Kiss Of The Spider Woman, The Rink) began working on their adaptation more than 14 years ago with Rivera, one of their favorite stars. Ebb died in 2004, and this show has evolved through previous productions in Washington D.C. and Chicago.
Kander and McNally, with director John Doyle and choreographer Graciella Daniele, have pared the two-act musical to one. I saw the first preview, so I won’t say too much about the performances, in which Rivera co-stars with Roger Rees as Anton — except that Rivera’s singing is fantastic and she positively exudes charisma. And the brilliant designers Scott Pask (set) and Japhy Weideman (lights) have provided a properly spooky, haunted skeleton of a setting.
There are echoes of the Kander & Ebb musical style — think “Wilkommen,” “All That Jazz,” “New York, New York” — but lacking the stropped, razor-edge fit of words and melody that made those songs unforgettable.
There’s a more important reason why I think this show hasn’t found its way to Broadway: Oddly for the authors of such unabashedly disturbing musicals, they turned a shocking parable (rid yourselves of this evil influence, the half-Jewish, half-Gypsy Claire tells her old neighbors, and I promise that prosperity will follow) into a mawkish love story echoing everything from Carousel to Sunset Boulevard. In the all-too-attractive songs “You, You, You” and “In The Forest Again,” Claire and Anton reflect on their lost love (!). It will somehow be requited when she carts him off in a casket to dwell with her forever. This makes a macabre hash of Durrenmatt, rendering the story into nonsense. Condensed to 90 minutes, the fatal flaw is all the more inescapable — and unresolvable.