Friedrich Durrenmatt's "The Visit" is about evil. Since the very concept is so out of fashion, it's not surprising that Edwin Sherin's production is merely a tepid caricature of the play.
Like Ionesco's "Rhinoceros," "The Visit" is an attempt to understand, in explicitly theatrical terms, what overtook Europe in World War II. Both plays were written in the mid-'50s, when people were coming to see that the Nazis had gone beyond the traditional brutalities of war.
The systemic extermination of various parts of their own civilian population and those of the countries they conquered - often with the wholehearted cooperation of the vanquished - represented a new, unfathomable horror.
In Ionesco, the citizens of a small town become raging beasts. Durrenmatt's image is less subtle. His burghers become accomplices in the murder of a fellow citizen for no more complicated reason than the promise of money.
Taken on its own terms, "The Visit" is second-rate Brecht. The original production, directed by Peter Brook and starring the Lunts, gave the play a profoundly unsettling human reality. In the person of Lynn Fontanne, evil became alluring, enchanting, irresistible. The transformation of Alfred Lunt from a scamp into a sacrificial lamb was viscerally horrifying. Virtually nothing about Sherin's production is human, and so we can watch it placidly, knowing its allegory about how seductive evil can be has nothing to do with us.
Jane Alexander plays Claire Zachanassian, the woman who left the little town of Gullen at 17, disgraced and seven months pregnant. She returns 38 years later as the wealthiest woman in the world, prepared to offer Gullen 1 billion marks for the murder of the man who ruined her.
Alexander makes her understandably, but unrelievedly, hard. Even her gait has an abrasive rhythm. She alternates each determined step of her right foot with a painful swoosh as she drags her mangled left foot.
Her voice is low and throaty, her speech clipped, sometimes an imperious bark, as if she were speaking in the original German. For Alexander, the role is a huge stretch from the cool, ladylike characters she often plays, but some of the assured femininity she normally brings to the stage might have given Claire some disquieting appeal.
Apart from Alexander, the only actor allowed to use his own face is Harris Yulin, who plays her prey. All the others wear masks from the nostrils up, which allows them to play several roles. It allows men to play women and vice versa, further reducing the play to a cartoon. (The best use of the masks is in the curtain call, when a spotlight hits the table where the actors have discarded them.)
By contrast to these ciphers, Yulin, not the most interesting actor around, suddenly takes on an unexpected humanity. He plays Claire's seducer in a low-key, dignified way. He is not helped by Sherin's weak staging of several crucial scenes.
Kelly Walters and Gordon Joseph Weiss have an eerie, fleshy weightlessness as the two men Claire has had castrated and blinded for helping her seducer. Timothy Britten Parker is elegant as Claire's latest airhead husband, and Tom Tammi is convincingly troubled as the only man in Gullen who questions what is happening.
Ultimately, this "Visit" is dissatisfying because it totally lacks suspense. Not for a second do you doubt that evil will triumph, even if she is dressed as garishly as Alexander. Evil may be banal in the real world. It need not be so transparent in theater.
"How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot," the great poet once wrote of himself, and we can echo it, with much the same irony, while still warmly welcoming last night's staging of Friedrich Duerrenmatt's "The Visit" at the Roundabout Theater. "The Visit" is indeed an unpleasant play to meet on a dark night, or any other night - unpleasant but, for good or ill, unforgettable.
Duerrenmatt called his play "a satiric parable," and it presents a savage picture of communal greed and personal revenge - the unflinching dramatics of Greek tragedy placed in a cozy hometown setting. The background is all gemutlichly Swiss, but there is prussic acid in the chocolate creams, and the cuckoo-clocks explode on time.
The story is extraordinary. It starts slowly, like a comedy clearing its throat for laughter. In the shabby railway station of a strangely impoverished town in Switzerland, humbled city worthies are waiting nervously. A fabulously rich woman (Jane Alexander) is expected, a native daughter returning in triumph after a 38-year exile.
She is Claire Zachanassian - who left the town in disgrace, pregnant and labeled a whore - and has classically made good via the bedrooms and boardrooms of the world, which she now, rich beyond the dreams of Croesus, effectively owns.
Naturally, she arrives in style, if early. Turning an express into a local by simply pulling the alarm cord - she hands the outraged guard 4,000 marks for the inconvenience - she brings with her an entourage, including a new husband-to-be, and such knick-knacks as a throne-like sedan-chair, complete with brawny attendants, a caged black panther and an ornate but empty coffin. The coffin is not for her.
The town is out for money - it is convinced that she will munificently subsidize her now impoverished birthplace and restore its sometime prosperity. And she will. Claire Zachanassian will give the town 1 billion marks.
But she puts a price on her generosity. Like an aged and bitter Salome she wants a head on her platter - that of one Anton Schill (Harris Yulin), her former lover, who all those years ago betrayed her, maligned her in court and arranged her banishment, thus clearing the way for his marriage to a rich shopkeeper's daughter.
At first it seems like a sick joke destined to end in musical-comedy jollity. A civic rub-out for hard cash? People don't do that kind of thing. Not even in plays. But Claire does. She believes that "the highest justice has no pity." And she wants justice.
She gets it. Even Anton becomes a transfixed co-conspirator in his own doom, as the first shocked but still gold-hungry Town Council, after much misgiving, sanctimoniously but inexorably resolves to kill him, "not out of love for worldly gain but out of love for the right to purify the town guilt, to reaffirm our faith in the eternal power of justice."
She leaves town with Anton in his coffin - he was the one man she truly loved, and now she has him, in her fashion, forever.
A weird play, then, but perhaps simpler than it sounds. Duerrenmatt once suggested: "Claire is neither Justice nor Apocalypse, nor the Marshall Plan. Money has enabled her to act like the heroine in a Greek tragedy. Just play the foreground and the background will take care of itself."
This is basically what the present Roundabout staging by Edwin Sherin has done. Only the two leading characters - Alexander and Yulin - are spotlit in a German Expressionist-style production that puts all the other characters in grotesque masks.
It is totally different from the two earlier productions seen on Broadway; Peter Brook's original staging of this same adaptation by Maurice Valency, starring Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne, which I saw in London, and Harold Prince's later version with Rachel Roberts and John McMartin - although Alexander is rather more like the robustly vulgar Roberts than the genteely snakelike Fontanne.
Alexander, with her hair piled up in a red wig, her red rouged cheeks glistening with cheap menace, and with a limp that would have done Richard III proud (Fontanne, unlike Roberts, refused to accept that the crippled Claire was one-legged, a refusal somewhat sweetening her more subtle interpretation), plays an enraged Medea of a woman with glittering zest. This is an altogether remarkable performance that leaves the admirable Yulin - in a role that tested Alfred Lunt himself - tossed and shaking, though never quite capsized, in her formidable wake.
Duerrenmatt's parable always adds up to an unsettling experience - but here with the shrewd design team of Thomas Lynch (sets), Frank Krenz (costumes), Michael Curry (masks), Douglas J. Cuomo (music) and Roger Morgan (lighting) added to Sherin's slow-build climax and Alexander's imperial gesture, it unsettles to good purpose. An evening to remember that you might want to forget.
No one need go to the theater to learn that people will do anything for money. So why does "The Visit," Friedrich Durrenmatt's drama about a town that sells its soul for a fortune, still exert a chilling grip nearly 35 years after it shook up genteel Eisenhower-era audiences who had been drawn to it by the star power of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne?
The answers are there to be found in the Roundabout Theater Company's revival at the Criterion Center. As directed by Edwin Sherin without benefit of star power but with lots of intelligence and a fiercely conceived lead performance by Jane Alexander, "The Visit" stands revealed as a small masterpiece of misanthropy, a play whose cynicism is so thickly layered that the greed driving the plot at its surface seems almost the least of its characters' sins. For Durrenmatt, people, not money, are the root of all evil.
Better still, the playwright's sense of theater is as nasty as his view of humanity. "The Visit" is not a soul-searching morality play in the earnest manner of a contemporaneous American work like "The Crucible," but a grotesque fable whose icy laughter and bizarre fantastical sideshows (a pair of blind, guitar-strumming eunuchs, for instance) reflect its Swiss author's proximity to both the Holocaust and the accompanying absurdist revolution in theater. People don't sit around and debate the issues in "The Visit." Like the pet black panther that mysteriously stalks the play's progress, its characters lie in wait, then move in for the kill.
The most spectacular killer, of course, is the one played by Ms. Alexander: Claire Zachanassian, a woman who is on her eighth husband and now owns half the world but has returned to her backwater hometown, Gullen, in Central Europe, to avenge her cruel, impoverished childhood. Claire offers her desperate, starving former neighbors a billion marks in exchange for the life of the grocer Anton Schill (Harris Yulin), who seduced and abandoned her 38 years earlier. Although the good people of Gullen are insulted by the notion that they would even consider doing in their most popular and respected citizen for money, there's never any doubt that they will do exactly that. The ghoulish fun in "The Visit" comes from watching Durrenmatt, his own cynical voice often inseparable from that of his heroine, as he sadistically tightens the vise on the town, forcing its hypocrites to reveal their ugly true colors in ever more vicious ways.
Mr. Sherin is keenly aware of Durrenmatt's black humor and utter lack of sentimental illusions. Everyone in Gullen -- starting with the mayor, the schoolmaster and the priest -- is morally corrupt, and, accordingly, Mr. Sherin puts every actor except the two leads in fiendish Expressionist masks. (As designed with a Weimar flourish by Michael Curry, they also help mask the blandness of a supporting cast spread thin as it doubles and triples in roles.) The conceit quite properly jolts "The Visit" out of naturalism, but not so much so that attention is distracted from the dialogue, which, in Maurice Valency's English adaptation, offers savage counterpoint to the action. The characters are always standing up for "simple human decency" and bragging about Gullen's "ancient democratic institutions," its abolition of capital punishment and its status as a "cradle of culture" once visited by Brahms and Goethe. Meanwhile, they spend Claire's blood money prematurely, steadily acquiring new shoes, gold teeth and other emblems of the good life on credit.
Thomas Lynch's set and Roger Morgan's lighting, though sometimes heavy-handed in their Brechtian effects, augment Mr. Sherin's imaginative scheme. With its tattered banners, hellishly colored interiors and strings of carnival lights, this "Visit" looks like a doomsday circus, an incipient charnel house. It is a shame that the director cannot always fill in the arresting broad canvas with telling details. The famous train-station scene in which Schill tries and fails to flee Gullen brings on intermission with a thud in Mr. Sherin's perfunctory staging of it, and it is further compromised by Mr. Yulin's minimalist performance. Neither Schill's terror nor, in the final act, his growing inner serenity is delineated in a lazy characterization that clings throughout to a single, sluggish note of shabby middle-aged defeat.
Mr. Yulin's failings put a big burden on Ms. Alexander, and she often carries it. Claire Zachanassian is a great role for any actress, but a particular feast for this one, whose innate coldness is far better suited to the bloodcurdling than the heartwarming. (Witness "Shadowlands.") With rouged cheeks, a pile of red hair, a garish crimson gown and a prosthetic leg that she delights in dragging noisily across the floor, Ms. Alexander is virtually unrecognizable in "The Visit." She cuts a demonic image as she surveys the action from her sedan chair (held aloft by two muscle men), smokes cigars, orders her retinue about and mocks the self-righteous platitudes of the Gullen officials. This fascinating performance would be a great one were it not subject to Ms. Alexander's own limitations in executing it. The commanding size of a true avenging fury -- a matter of presence, not physical stature -- is missing from this Claire, most obviously when her venomous declarations ("The world made me a whore. I make the world a brothel!") emerge as raspy wisecracks (augmented by a loud hand rattle) rather than as a panther's jungle roars.
Given the production's inconsistencies, it cannot honestly be called essential viewing for those who have vivid memories of great previous stagings of "The Visit" -- whether the legendary Peter Brook version with the Lunts, about which I have only heard tell, or the haunting Harold Prince production with Rachel Roberts and John McMartin that the New Phoenix Repertory Company brought to Broadway in 1973. But Durrenmatt's play itself is essential viewing, and the Roundabout rendering is good enough to put across its horror to newcomers. That horror remains fresh because the citizens of "The Visit" are not remote abstractions, abject money-grubbers or Nazi thugs, but articulate champions of justice who congratulate themselves on their civic virtues even as they take a vote to rationalize murder. A nightmare about democracy, Durrenmatt's play will always be pertinent, and when more so than in an election year?