By: Samuel L. Leiter
November 15, 2021: The Visitor, a new musical at the Public based on the Thomas McCarthy film of 2007, was on the verge of opening last year when, like so many other shows, it was shut down by the pandemic. It turns out to have a decent-enough score by the Pulitzer Prize-winning team (Next to Normal) of Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (lyrics), a satisfactory company led by David Hyde Pierce, a well-oiled production staged by Daniel Sullivan (with choreography by Lorin Latarro), and, as its raison d’être , a subject of stinging social significance. Nonetheless, for all its intermittent pleasures, it fails to rivet attention. What seemed real on screen feels flimsily contrived on stage, and it doesn’t take long before one wonders whether this material really demanded to be musicalized.
Kwame Kei-Armah and Brian Yorkey’s book sticks fairly close to the movie, depending on swift transitions among multiple interior and exterior locales effected by David Zinn’s neutral set of sliding units, topped by a surrounding overhead gallery, and supported by the outstanding video projections of David Bengali and Hana S. Kim. Thus we whiz in an eye blink from lecture hall to apartment to subway to prison and so on, greatly abetted by Japhy Weideman’s lighting wizardry.
Mr. Hyde-Pierce is a perfectly satisfactory avatar of the deceptively bland role created by Richard Jenkins, a bored, colorless University of Connecticut economics professor, depressed by his wife’s recent death. Walter’s professional obligations force him, reluctantly, to attend a conference in New York. There he maintains a book and record-lined, two-bedroom apartment that he rarely uses. It looks like eco profs have it good.
Anyway, what should Walter discover in his flat but a pair of young lovers, living there after it was rented to them by a scam artist. The man is Tarek, played by Ahmad Maksoud, who moved up from the ensemble to replace Tony winner Ari’el Stachel, when, for undisclosed reasons, he departed during rehearsals. (The show, reportedly, has had a number of internal problems among its members.) The woman is Zainab (Alysha Deslorieux). Both are undocumented immigrants. Tarek, a Syrian raised since childhood in Michigan, is a street performer of the West African djembe drum; Zainab, from Senegal, is an ethnic jewelry designer.
(Zainab speaks with an accent. I read that Tarek does, too, and that this was an issue with Mr. Stachel, who, rightfully, thought it inappropriate for someone raised in Michigan. When I saw the show, Mr. Maksoud used no discernible foreign accent.)
Walter is too nice to kick them out so he lets the couple live with him, soon finding his loneliness, and his alienation from the human race, dissipated by his new friendship with Tarek. In fact, music lover that he is (the classics, of course), he quickly begins taking djembe lessons from Tarek, finding his soul in this new form of expression. Like Mr. Jenkins in the movie, Mr. Hyde has learned enough to make his modest drumming convincing.
Once the setup of this amicable ménage à trois is established, the next step is to create a crisis, and that comes about one-third through the 90-minute, intermissionless show when Tarek is arrested for jumping a turnstile (he’s actually innocent), and ends up in the bitter cold hands of ICE. Walter, who visits him in detention whenever possible, does what he can to obtain legal assistance, but ICE says no dice.
Tarek’s mother, Mouna (Jacqueline Antaramian), who learns of his fate only after she comes to New York seeking her son, can do nothing, of course, since she too is undocumented. The attractive Mouna quickly takes up residence in Walter’s place as he—conveniently taking a leave from his teaching job—spends his time on Tarek’s behalf. He says he’s writing a book, but he’s really into beating his drum.
The height of contrivance would be if Mouna, a widow, and Walter were to get even mildly involved; we’ll leave it at that. And it can’t be denied that, as written and performed, Mouna, whose beloved son has been taken away and possibly sent back to a war-torn country of which he knows nothing, seems surprisingly constrained in her grief and fear.
The writers find as many opportunities to bring songs and dances into the story as possible. The show moves along musically and physically at a reasonable clip—and there is some really fancy drum work by Takafumi Nikaido—but much of the air seems dramatically dead. The songs, some with titles like “Heart in Your Hands,” “What Little Can I Do?,” “Blessings (At Times Like These),” and “My Love Is Free,” are mainly about feelings, not plot or character developments.
When we get to Mr. Hyde-Pierce’s 11 o’clock anthem, “Better Angels,” we listen to a heartfelt rhetorical diatribe set to music railing against the unfair immigration system and our broken national soul. However, none of it seems organic to Walter’s character or the spirit of the show. It’s almost as if Walter’s last name were Mitty and, having belatedly realized this country has a big immigration problem, he imagines himself rising to the moment by speaking to the throngs at the Washington Memorial. For example,
AND WE MUST FIND OUR BETTER ANGELS,
AND OUR COUNTRY’S STOLEN SOUL.
AND REMEMBER WHERE WE CAME FROM.
AND MAKE WHAT’S BROKEN WHOLE.
FOR WE WERE BORN IN REVOLUTION
AND WE WERE BUILT ON RIGHTS OF MEN
NOT FOR REPRODUCTION
WHEN WE FIGHT, WE SAY FOR FREEDOM
WILL WE KNOW FREEDOM ONCE AGAIN?
The Visitor, well done as it is, remains earthbound, using its story of a polite, talented, and charming young man’s tragic encounter with the law as a teaching moment regarding our broken immigration policy, especially as it concerned Middle Easterners in the wake of 9/11. Its polemical intentions are clear but, for all the disappointment implicit in what happens to Tarek (I heard a gasp or two), it never catches fire as involving drama, or even political theatre. The need to keep musicalizing the emotions of less than fully developed characters—with only the barest minimum of humor—simply gets in the way.
425 Lafayette St., NYC
Through December 5, 2021
Photography: Joan Marcus