THIS VISITOR NEEDS TO STAY LONGER

The-Visitor-Off-Broadway-Review-David-Hyde-Pierce-Bangs-the-Drum-1024x576

 

Move it to Broadway.

Right now.

Right NOW.

THE VISITOR, now at the Public Theatre, is a musical of quality. Three different people from three different countries find common ground in an uncommon way.

Walter mostly lives in Connecticut, where for the last 20 years he’s taught college-level economics. At least he’s tried. In his opening number, in between his dispensing facts about the economy, he imagines telling his utterly uncaring students to “Wake Up!” 

Choreographer Lorin Latarro has apparently sat in such classrooms long enough to recall the various slumping and shifting postures that students have when they don’t give a damn. She replicates them in a deft piece of musical staging.

Walter rarely uses his New York apartment, but a convention brings him to town. When he unlocks the door and enters, the young woman inside is frightened at seeing whom she believes to be a burglar (or worse). Her boyfriend soon appears to defend her from this interloper. 

Matters could turn violent, but Walter is able to convince Tarek and Zainab that he has title to the place. The building’s super assumed that Walter wasn’t coming back anytime soon, and gave the two the keys to the apartment.

We might expect a full-blown shouting match in which hard feelings get harder. Instead, Tarek, a Syrian, and Zainab, who’s from Senegal, meekly pack their bags and leave. Walter feels so bad for them that, when he finds an item that Zainab has left behind, he chases after them, finds them and says that they may stay.

Lord knows that seems far-fetched. Bookwriters Kwame Kwei-Armah and Brian Yorkey are smart to retain what screenwriter-director Tom McCarthy included in his original film: that the two leave without a caustic word is one reason why Walter relents.

Yet what was that first night like when all three were in bed wondering what one of the others might do? Later, Zainab will forcefully state that she expects Walter will indeed want a certain kind of compensation for his kindness, as so many others have. 

As for Walter, he did complain, “every day is the same” in his life, so this certainly puts an end to that situation. Moreover, as he’ll later state, “Compassion is not weakness.” He also responds to Tarek, who plays the djembes – those tall African drums shaped like gigantic goblets with wide stems. Tarek encourages Walter to learn the instrument: “Put your heart in your hands and play.”

At the start, Walter is terrible as you’d expect from a person who even in this day and age still wears button-down shirts. Yet he does want to learn, and this fish-out-of-water gets into the swim of things. Walter is even willing to go downtown and play with Tarek and his colleagues. It’s a joyous time for everyone all around.

You know musicals: a moment of great exhilaration (The King and Anna romp through “Shall We Dance?”) is followed by one of deep despair (Lun Tha is dead, Tuptim is captured and is about to be whipped). Here a small misunderstanding leads to a major downward spiral.

It allows us to meet other people who make the same observation we’d heard Walter make earlier: “Every day is the same.” By the time they say it, we’ve seen that they have it far worse than Walter ever had.

Mouna, Tarek’s mother, shows up at the apartment because she hasn’t heard from her son in an inordinate while. (She has good reason to be concerned.) That she almost immediately expresses her negative opinion of her son’s liaison with Zainab makes us immediately disappointed in her. We’re well within our rights, too, because Zainab is black. 

Hold on: that’s not the reason. The one that Mouna gives turns out to be an excellent one. 

Those supposed nobles that populate such Shakespearean plays as HENRY VIII, KING JOHN, RICHARD II (let alone the III) aren’t nearly as noble as the people we meet in THE VISITOR. How well the cast conveys that nobility, for which expert director Daniel Sullivan must share in the credit. 

David Hyde Pierce creates one of those college profs who perpetually has one hand in his pocket. He’s as geeky-dorky as the role requires. Pierce’s mouth, with its Charlie Brown turned-down corners, could almost pass for a Fu Manchu mustache that’s slipped from under his nose.

The greatest revelation, however, is Ahmad Maksoud as Tarek. He once held the role of “Ensemble/Traffic Cop” but when Ari’el Stachel decided to leave the production, Maksoud inherited the role. You’d think it was his from Day One, for he delivers a thoroughly honest and forthright performance that doesn’t seem to be a performance at all. That’s always the best observation one can make about an actor, and it’s also equally true of Alysha Deslorieux as Zainab and Jacqueline Antaramian as Mouna.

What’s most wonderful about THE VISITOR is that almost everyone is nice. There are some minor characters who aren’t – there wouldn’t be a heartbreaking turn of events if they were. Besides, they’re just doing their job as best they can. However, the characters we care about are worth caring about, because they all mean well.

That’s also shown when Zainab asks if Walter ever takes his students to a theater where they can partake in a cultural experience.

“I teach economics,” he says by way of explanation.

To which she wisely says “All the more reason.”

The musical is played on an often-bare stage with set pieces occasionally sliding on and off. Let’s not blame set designer David Zinn for putting a Reader’s Digest Condensed Book in Walter’s bookcase. He’d never have one of those. Whoever put it up there, get it off right now.

The score is by those NEXT TO NORMAL Tony and Pulitzer winners.

Composer Tom Kitt’s music excels; Brian Yorkey’s lyrics are simple but hardly simplistic and are apt for each character. There’s a lovely song involving The Statue of Liberty with lyrics far from “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor” from Irving Berlin’s MISS LIBERTY misfire. The second act song “Such Beautiful Music” is indeed truth-in-advertising.

There was a time when musicals embraced not one but two love stories, one “serious” and one “comic”: GUYS AND DOLLS had Sky and Sarah in the former camp with Nathan and Adelaide in the latter; ditto THE PAJAMA GAME’s Babe and Sid as well as Gladys and Hinesy. THE VISITOR offers many more love stories of various kinds, as friendship segues into love. Here’s a musical worthy of more love from you and all other audiences.