For about the first half of its 90-minute running time, The Visitor, the new musical playing at the Public Theater based on Tom McCarthy’s 2007 film, works very nicely indeed. Kwame Kwei-Armah and Brian Yorkey’s script effectively translates McCarthy’s screenplay to the stage with understated encounters and the songs Yorkey (as lyricist) wrote with composer Tom Kitt are smartly-targeted. When I saw it, I was drawn to the characters and their unusual dynamic and felt I was in confident hands for the evening. And then, halfway through, for me the show got lost.
Walter, a depressed economics professor who has not recovered from the death of his classical pianist wife, has been hiding at a Connecticut college teaching the same stuff he’s taught endlessly for years, a kind of living death. Forced because of campus politics to attend a conference in Manhattan, he goes to the apartment in which he and his wife used to live (and he still owns) and finds a man and a woman – illegal immigrants – living there under the impression they have legitimately sublet the place. They’ve been ripped off by a crook, of course, but something about them makes Walter go from trying to expel them to inviting them to remain as his guests. The man, Tarek, is a musician who plays a drum based in middle eastern rhythms, and he begins to teach Walter how to cut loose on the drum himself. And his guests begin to introduce him to communities of immigrants he had barely noticed and never encountered or engaged before. And then Tarek gets arrested and the government starts the machinery to deport him.
And that’s when the show goes wrong. The story stops moving forward because Walter, for all of his desire to help Tarek, finds that he has no power to do anything. Without the ability to change Tarek’s situation, the show has largely run out of dramatic options to explore. Even the arrival of Tarek’s mother can’t help much because all he can do is acknowledge to her his inability to do much of anything except say things he hopes will be of comfort.
So, without much action to depict, the rest of the playing time is mostly filled by having its characters sing songs either about their pasts or about what they feel now.
I’m going to repeat something I’ve written before: I find that the audience generally has limited patience with characters talking about their pasts. We go to the theater to see what choices characters are going to make. As long as choice is alive onstage, we are engaged. But extended passages in the past tense tend to lose us. No choices can be made in the past. The choices of the past have already been made so, usually, there is little if any tension or suspense in the presentation of stuff that has happened. (The exception is when our new awareness of the past causes us to reevaluate the characters and their options in the present.) So the songs in which the characters in The Visitor describe their pasts in detail bog the show down.
Similarly, musical theater songs tend to work best not when people are explaining how they feel but when they are dealing with something that causes us in the audience to figure out how they must feel. In My Fair Lady, Liza doesn’t sing, “Dancing with him I knew that I was falling in love” (which would be disastrous). She sings, “I’ll never know what made it so exciting/Why all at once my heart took flight.” And the audience goes, “Uh, we have a theory.” Prompting the audience to theorize about the characters’ emotions is what keep us invested in the show. If the emotions are explained, we in the audience become passive, uninvolved.
The Visitor builds to Walter’s big song of rage about how horrible the indifference to the suffering of others is. Where have “the better angels of our nature” gone? David Hyde Pierce sings the song with admirable passion and gets a hand, but the song–explaining his feelings and expressing his outrage–doesn’t work. At the end of the film, when Walter takes to playing the drums in the subway, we understand the fury of his playing is motivated by his rage as to what has happened to his friends and his inability to help them. The drum speaks what he cannot say. In the musical, he has spent a fair amount of time trying to say or sing it, so the final moment of his playing the drum is robbed of its meaning and power.
A number of people commenting on the show have criticized it because they have said it adheres to the “white savior” trope which many find noxious. I think this misapprehends the show. Part of the point of The Visitor is that, for all of his desire to help, Walter is incapable of actually doing anything. He is not a white savior for he is, in fact, unable to save anybody. Yes, he is able to hire an immigration attorney, but the lawyer turns out to be of no assistance at all. What the action of the story teaches Walter is that, faced with the callousness of the US government policy on undocumented aliens in this country, his privilege is of no consequence.
I value the first half of the show and am sorry the gifted writers and director Daniel Sullivan did not lick the second half. I do think it is fixable, but my thoughts on how to approach the problems don’t belong here. If you see me in a diner, I’ll be glad to discuss them over a cup of coffee.