It’s tempting to call the new musical “The Visitor,” now at the Public Theater, well-intentioned – but it’s a bit of puzzlement what its intentions are. On one hand, the show wants to be about the spiritual and political awakening of Walter, a morose middle-aged college professor, played with sincerity and pathos by the always welcome David Hyde Pierce. On the other hand, it’s determined to alert us to America’s policy on deporting and detaining undocumented immigrants, which the show’s creators clearly see as cruel and unfair. Both seem like reasonable bases for an involving show.
But trying to do both things in a mere 90 minutes – normally a running time that one treasures in these Covid-19 times – does the material (based on Tom McCarthy’s critically acclaimed 2007 film) no favors. And what’s particularly shocking about the show’s many failures is that during six years of development, its top-tier level of talent – writers Kwame Kwei-Armah and Brian Yorkey, composer Tom Kitt and director Daniel Sullivan – failed to solve even some of the simplest problems.
For example, all four of the main characters, from the clearly unhappy, widowed Walter to the two immigrants he finds in his NYC apartment (and quickly befriends) -- the charming street musician Tarek (a charismatic Ahmad Maksoud) and his wary, tough-talking girlfriend Zainab (a powerful Alysha Desloreux) -- to Tarek’s kind, loving mother Mouna (an affecting Jacqueline Antarmarian) end up with far less dimension than necessary for us to truly care about them as flesh-and-blood people.
Second, the bullet-train-like pacing forces us to take its plot developments on pure faith. Why does Walter connect almost immediately with Tarek – especially as there’s not even a hint of homo-eroticism here – eventually pouring both his emotional and financial resources into trying to save him from deportation? And can we really believe, despite Walter’s detachment from the world, that he’s unaware from the get-go that Tarek and Zainab are in America illegally?
Moreover, after Walter is fully awakened to what he perceives are America’s injustices – although it can be argued that Tarek really has no valid claim to be here – why does he take no real action. (Singing a rant called “Better Angels,” no matter its sentiment, is akin to shouting at the sky.) Plus, it can seem that Tarek and Zainab (and even Mouna) are simply in this story to make Walter a better person, even though he suffers no real consequences, while all three of those characters end up having to leave New York.
At times, we’re momentarily distracted by some decent Kitt-Yorkey tunes, such as the bittersweet “What Little I Can Do” and the spirited duet “Lady Liberty,” along with splashes of Lorin Latarro’s energetic choreography. But sadly, when “The Visitor” finally ends – rather predictably – you’re not sorry to say goodbye.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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