The In-Person Off-Broadway experience: Public Theater’s The Visitor
“Take the square and make it round.” The instruction is clear, and makes sense within the Public Theater’s overly thoughtful musical interpretation of the simple and, what I thought at the time, sweet film, “The Visitor”. I’m not sure I’d have the same opinion about it today, which is a fascinating concept, one that needs some exploration. The framework of Tom Kitt (music), Brian Yorkey (lyrics, book), and Kwame Kwei-Armah’s (book) musical adaptation of this 2007 film of the same name is trying to do two things at once. Sometimes that’s an uplifting thing, but here, it seems to be clashing together, and not in a musical drum beat kinda way. They are trying with all their might to take on this kind of story, putting their heart into it at every turn, while also enlightening the structure with modern thought. A valiant attempt, but when the center of the piece is on the troubled grief-stricken dynamic of an old white guy lost in the fields of academia and privilege, the struggle is real, and very complex. The writers want to tell a different story, the difficult and upsetting tale of immigrants, not necessarily through the eyes of white privilege, but the source material doesn’t have their back. They try, overthinking the flawed formula, to flesh out the endless trials of the undocumented, but the film’s structure works hard against them. It’s a no-win situation, sadly, and even the most proficient of writers or directors most likely could not have found their way through.
The show that was to open last year found itself delayed, naturally, because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was scheduled to return to the Public’s stage this fall, but the world had a few things to say about what it was trying to present. Problems floated in the air, and as the Public’s statements attempted to clear the air by writing: to “accommodate for more time for the company to address questions about race, representation, and identity,” performances were halted after just a few previews. All anyone could do is wonder what was going on. It made total sense though, noticing the overtly positive changes in our culture’s viewpoint over the last year and a half in regards to representation. One of The Visitor’s central stars, Tony winner Ari’el Stachel (Broadway”s The Band’s The Band’s Visit), who had been involved with the development process for six years, left the show, leaving many curiously leaning in. Who knows why, and I only note this, not because of negative, or positive connotations, but the show had a focal issue, a fundamental flaw that stemmed from the source. I loved that film, back in the day, but lots have changed in the mindset of most, and as I watched the new musical formulation unfold, the discomfort I felt started almost instantly. This slant wasn’t a story we needed any more. It felt saddening in a way, like when you watch an old beloved film but only see the cultural problems inherent within. If you wanted to tell the difficult and dangerous story of undocumented immigrants in America, taking a film from the past, that wouldn’t be greeting positively or with the same praise it received when it first opened, was probably not the way to go.
We are being asked to dig in and care about the life of college professor Walter, lovingly portrayed by David Hyde Pierce (Broadway’s Hello, Dolly!), who, I might add, does a wonderful job here creating a character that we do care about, even with the complicated obstacles set up before him. He is white, a widow, and invites us into his uncurious suffering; from a crippling combination of grief, life dissatisfaction, and a staled internal growth process. He gives a dull disconnected lecture once a week to students who seem to be either as disconnected as he is, or just ignored by him. He is floundering, even if he doesn’t really notice it himself. His deadened curiosity blinds him to his own bored unhappiness, but we see it clearly. That is until, by chance, he is forced to spend more time in the city, rather than retreat, like he does mentally, up to a house far and away after his lecture. He is pushed into going to his much ignored Manhattan apartment, only to find an immigrant couple living and renting the space from someone unknown to Walter. Rather than being cold and removed, something wakes up inside him, and even before he understands it himself, he invites the Syrian refugee Tarek, and his girlfriend, Zainab, a refugee from Senegal, to stay, rather than be ousted into the dark cold streets of NYC when it is obvious that they have no idea where they will go.
Through an unintentional subway slip of the drum hand, Tarek, most sweetly portrayed by the very appealing Ahmad Maksoud (Broadway’s The Band’s Visit), after finding a musical connection to Walter, is arrested and held by ICE under the threat of deportation to a country that he has little to no connection to. It’s quite the disturbing moment for all, but for Zainab, powerfully played by Alysha Deslorieux (Broadway’s Hamilton), it’s life-altering and dangerous. She has to figure out her next complicated and scary step forward in this world. For Talek’s mother, the guilt-stricken Mouna, tenderly portrayed by Jacqueline Antaramian (Broadway’s Doctor Zhivago), who just shows up at Walter’s door hoping to discover why she hasn’t heard from her son for the last little while, it’s terrifying. Each of these immigrant souls has a story; a strongly formed narrative that signals and unpacks the layers of trauma inflicted upon them, in the homeland they have escaped from, and the newly embraced America. But it’s their story we end up completely caring about and wanting more, and no matter how well structured Walter’s narrative is, it feels uncomfortable and insulting to the others when we are taken into his sheltered world. It left me really wondering about my connection to the equally wonderful Richard Jenkins who played Walter in the film, and why I wasn’t uncomfortable back in 2007 when I watched the film initially.
In 2007, it seems we, as a generalized society, were okay with looking at immigrants through the eyes of the white American savior. The film humanized Muslims for Americans, which at the time was seen as good as the media was demonizing them daily. But now, in 2021, the way we view that same Walter-type of character seems wildly out of touch and dangerous. The secondary characters in The Visitor are the souls we want to know more about, especially since we are left not really knowing anything about what happens to them. We are very curious about them; about their backstory, their side story, and their future story. Walter’s, although distinctly presented in a meaningful manner for our consumption, focusing on his and any other aspect of his life feels somewhat dirty and insulting to the ones we really care about. And I’m not even going to get into the romantic edge that is pushed forward between Mouna and Walter. All I will say is thank god it was held back as much as it was because I was going to cringe myself under the seat if they had let that energy go forward.
Uncomfortably but strongly laid out on a wisely deconstructed stage, designed impeccably by David Zinn (Broadway’s Torch Song), with additional kudos going to the talented team of lighting designer Japhy Weideman (Broadway’s Dear Evan Hansen), costume designer Toni-Leslie James (Broadway’s Thoughts of a Colored Man), sound designers Jessica Paz (Broadway’s Hadestown) & Sun Hee Kil (Public’s Suffs), and video designers David Bengali (Signature’s Twilight…) & Hana S. Kim (Public’s Eve’s Song), the story rolls out with athletic creativity, finding a flowing energy in it’s solidly defined movement, thanks to the strong symbolic choreography by Lorin Latarro (Broadway’s Waitress) giving truth to director David Sullivan’s (Broadway’s The Nap) deep attempt to balance out these conflicting worlds. The invigorated cast (Robert Ariza, Anthony Chan, Delius Doherty, C. K. Edwards, Will Erat, Brandon Espinoza, Sean Ewing, Marla Louissaint, Dimitri Joseph Moïse, Takafumi Nikaido, Paul Pontrelli, and Katie Terza) works overtime effectively, finding great authenticity where it can be delivered. Pierce gives us a Walter we should and could really care about if only the house he was given to live in wasn’t next door to the one we really are interested in seeing and knowing. Maksoud, who was Statchel’s understudy here at the Public, as the wonderfully giving drum player Tarek, attempts to find and unpack his story with clarity and authenticity, but he isn’t really given enough to go on, leaving us with a flawed characterization that only has the obvious bits out for us all to see.
To be honest, it’s really the survival story of The Visitor‘s women that succeed at giving us enough moments for them to shine as bright as the “Lady Liberty” they unpack. Antaramian and Deslorieux find their layers of complications and intelligence with expertise, filling out their form beyond the simplistic framework this story would like to give them. They are survivors, at least for the time being, and it is there, inside of their and Tarek’s destiny that we are left feeling anxiously curious about. And they are the ones we want to hear from as The Visitor comes to a close, not Walter. It’s within that focus and directional problem that is working against this musical piece of theatre, no matter how beautifully The Public Theater tries to shine it up in a timely manner for our consumption. This square peg shouldn’t be played with, nor could it be forced into that circular hole. Let’s put all that rage and awareness to better use, and unpack the real story of the undocumented immigrant and the broken system that tears lives apart daily. Walter’s story of white privilege and enlightenment has been told one too many times.