EYE ON THEATRE
One Helluva Old Lady
By JOHN SIMON
The Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt’s “The Visit of the Old Lady,” as the German original is titled—In America, just “The Visit,” because old ladies do not sell—is a masterpiece. However, the musical, adapted from Maurice Valency’s inadequate American translation, is a tricky business worthy of some discussion.
Because the musical, just mounted by the worthy Williamstown Theatre Festival, is thought to be Broadway bound, I traveled to Williamstown to catch its final performance. There were additional reasons, the main one being Chita Rivera, repeating her starring role, and, at 81, still the great dancing, singing and acting diva, her age hardly, if at all, showing.
Another point of interest is the terrific score by John Kander and Fred Ebb, their last as the team that gave us such masterworks as “Cabaret” and “Chicago” among several others, Ebb having died in 2004. In their musical of “The Visit,” book by Terence McNally, there isn’t a single unwinning number, with at least four destined for the Great American Songbook. No one will put them across better than the incomparable Chita.
Herewith a précis of the German plot. In the small Central European town of Gullen,
Alfred Ill (in America, Schill), 20, and Klari Wascher, 17, were lovers. Pregnant, she was dumped by Alfred, who instead married the better-off daughter of the family-owned general store. Klari sued for support, but Alfred made her out promiscuous, as confirmed by two suborned witnesses and one prejudiced judge. Turned into a whore, she left town and, beautiful and clever, married a succession of six rich husbands, one of them the billionaire Zacharissian. Now in her 60s, as widowed Claire Zacharissian, the richest woman in the world, she returns to Gullen to exact justice, a/k/a vengeance.
Gullen is on the verge of bankruptcy, what with Claire having anonymously bought up everything of worth in and around it. She is welcomed as a favorite daughter and certain benefactress, the town’s savior. Indeed she will give the town a billion, and another billion to be divided among the citizenry, on one condition: Alfred delivered to her as a corpse. Outraged, the town rejects such a bargain.
She has quite an entourage: two huge, gum-chewing ex-convicts who carry her about in a litter, and a pair of small, squealing, yea-saying creatures, blinded and castrated at her behest, plus a butler. The pair are the former false witnesses; the butler, the ex-judge. There is also a pet black panther in a cage that escapes and is killed. Klari used to call Alfred her panther. She moves into the hotel and says, “I can wait.”
The townsfolk envisage future prosperity in denial of the precondition. Everyone, everywhere is buying luxury goods on credit, freely accorded to all. The whole town revives, and even Alfred’s family and store are richly revamped. Only one person, the schoolmaster, loudly agitates against the murderous bargain, and is duly attacked for it. Driven to drink, he ends up joining the hell-bent community.
He alone foresees the worst and is afraid, his fear universally ridiculed as absurd. He tries to leave town, but surrounding him at the railway station are the leading citizens: burgomaster, police chief, physician, painter, gym teacher and others. “Only there “to see you off”, they say, but, without laying a hand on him, they scare him into not boarding the train.
There is also a bit of a love story. Claire and Alfred meet by chance in the woods where they used to make love. They share a bench, romancing, and Claire telling the by now repentant and reconciled Alfred, how she’ll take him to Capri in the coffin she brought along to a mausoleum with a seaside view, where, always in her sight, they will remain permanently reunited.
Members of the international press arrive and are lied to. After a car trip with his now affluent family, the repentant Alfred faces the inevitable. The town has visibly reverted to prosperity, and the mortal ritual concludes with a kind of Greek drama chorus, led by the prominent citizens and joined by the community.
Clearly we have here more than a play about greed, as most reviewers would have it. Rather it is about the corruptibility of the community, managing hypocritically to convert their guilt into a pseudo-moral act of justice. Impugned is democracy as trial by community. Claire and that community are twin protagonists, equally culpable. She is not innocent either, but not ripe for a death sentence.
One of the best things about the play is its slow but ineluctable rhythm. It is the devilish gradualness of the change from indignation to compliance that makes for fascination, as if nail by nail were being driven into Alfred’s coffin. The suspenseful progress from bad to worse behavior is what sucks us in, and our very involvement makes us sharers in the monstrous.
The musical worked in the two-act version well enough, first in Chicago and later Washington, aided by solid direction from Frank Galati and delightful choreography by Ann Reinking. To provide some dancing, an invented early scene had two dancers impersonate the young lovers balletically, presumably as a memory in their old selves.
But then one of the producers, bookwriter McNally’s boyfriend, found the thing too long and boring. A new (bad) director, John Doyle, was brought in and a new choreographer, Graciela Daniele. It was decided that the lovers should permeate the entire show, awkwardly intermingling with the present characters. The work was cut by some 25 minutes into a 95-minute one-acter, thus losing the slow, brilliantly conceived progression. Needed minor characters were economically eliminated. And Durrennmatt’s scene changes, in full view of the audience, ignored. Particularly annoying now are the dozen or so large black suitcases, preposterously carried to Claire’s hotel by the leading characters, then somehow reissuing as beds, benches, platforms as shifted around by the now skeleton cast, which by Doyle and Daniele’s obsession tends to parade around in circles.
We now have an impressive but inappropriate set by Scott Pask: a row of huge, moth-eaten arches with some underbrush intertwined, receding diagonally into the distance. It is much too grandiose and needlessly unreal. There is, however, in the German text, a curious now excised unrealistic bit of stagecraft. In the forest bench
scene, the playwright has, now excised, a quartet of townies impersonating trees and birds, and another one providing guitar riffs. Durrenmatt claims, in a program note to the Zurich premiere, that this was “not surrealism, but a somewhat painful love story—the attempt at rapprochement between an old man and an old woman—projected into a poetic stage space, and so becoming bearable.” That strikes me as disingenuous, but I daresay it can be effective.
The cast in this revival, including such stalwarts as David Garrison, Judy Kuhn and Jason Danieley, performs gallantly with one unfortunate exception. That is the good Roger Rees, who here, on the director’s or his own prompting, plays Alfred as a severe neurotic, almost a lunatic, presumably a prey to his clinging guilt. This is all wrong: he is an ordinary man, just like you or me, with the past long forgotten.
Hence the effect of his gradual transformation concurrent with that of the town.
The orchestra, under David Loud, performs flawlessly, and there is splendid, highly imaginative and yet credible lighting by Japhy Weideman, who goes from strengths to strength. But the reason for not missing this revival is manifest: the great Chita Rivera, in what may well be her farewell performance, unforgettable in every detail and, I dare say it, miraculous. Missing it is a lasting loss.
Photos by and courtesy of Paul Fox.
For more information, visit: wtfestival.org.
John Simon has written for over 50 years on theatre, film, literature, music and fine arts for the Hudson Review, New Leader, New Criterion, National Review, New York Magazine, Opera News, Weekly Standard, Broadway.com and Bloomberg News. He reviews books for the New York Times Book Review and Washington Post. To learn more, visit the hwww.JohnSimon-Uncensored.com website.