Exit Lines: Last Call

Written by Exit Lines, Theatre

Wave goodbye to Chita on Broadway.

exit-lines-logoAfter the Tony Awards, comes the reckoning, as fading shows that came away empty-handed fold up their tents. Thank heaven for little girls? In the case of Gigi, with High School Musical star Vanessa Hudgens, the answer would be “no.” Girls little and big failed to materialize at the boxoffice, further proving that reviving a flop musical, even one based on an Oscar-winning movie, will more than likely result in a flop musical revival. See also Side Show, a far worthier revival–or, rather, don’t see, as that closed months ago. (But you might want to give a listen to the cast album.)

“I’m unkillable,” declares Claire Zachanassian, at the top of The Visit. Not quite–the swan song for the legendary team of John Kander and Fred Ebb, the geniuses behind Cabaret and Chicago, closes tomorrow after a lengthy gestation that began in Chicago in 2001 and a short run on Broadway. I get it–there’s dark and there’s The Visit, based on an acclaimed play by Friedrich Dürrenmatt that provides only the coldest of comfort for audiences.  (There’s a less-than-classic 1964 film version with Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn, which is hard to find outside of occasional Fox Movie Channel airings.) Claire, the world’s richest woman after multiple marriages, returns to the Swiss town of her birth, which has fallen on hard times since her departure. The man of her youthful dreams, Anton (Roger Rees, who subsequently left the production due to illness), has fallen harder than most, into a long-since-loveless marriage and dissipation. The town is cheered to learn that Claire is soon to return, but the joy sours when she arrives with her weird “entourage,” including masked eunuchs, a body part or two missing, and a disdain for her hometown–exemplified by Anton, a once-promising lad who ditched her. Claire offers the town fathers a deal–a billion dollars to revivify the place and its residents, if they kill Anton for her.

Greed seeps in, insidiously replacing the initial revulsion toward the offer. Gradually The Visit, one part satiric comedy and one part horror show, with a coffin as its central design element, becomes something unexpected–a love story, as Claire and Anton reunite, in a way, in these fraught circumstances. There’s more than a hint of Poe in the proceedings, as a kind of love-death settles over the musical.

And, yes, it is a musical. While Claire may be somewhat feeble in body, Rivera, all 82 years of her, is still capable of an eight-show week, and does more with less, with just a few (and just enough) steps transforming the solo “Love and Love Alone” into a standard-to-be. “Yellow Shoes,” as the townspeople succumb to promises of consumer riches, is the sort of acrid musical comedy number the composers are known for, and I particularly liked “A Car Ride,” where Anton and his family recapture some of their faded gusto at the 11th hour. Best known for his no-frills Sweeney Todd revival, director John Doyle keeps the material spare, direct…and unlovable, or, rather, as lovable as a serpent, at a safe distance. I’ll miss it as it slithers off to what I hope will be future productions.

HAND TO GODAs the British invasion swept away all comers in plays, Hand to God is still keeping a hand in, and has announced ticket sales through January. That may be optimistic as summer months hostile to much besides brand names loom, but I like its gumption. And I like the show, starting with its marquee at the Booth, which announces “A New American Play!”–cocking a puppety finger at the oh-so-English The Audience right next door. Just thinking about that makes me grin. (Also the name of its very “hands on” director, Moritz von Stuelpnagel, which, I say with affection, is like something out of the Marx Brothers.)

And I like the play, a kind of mashup of Avenue Q and The Exorcist. Imported to Broadway after successful runs Off, Robert Askins’ black comedy centers on misfit teen Jason (Steven Boyer), whose concerned if disaster-prone mother Margery (Geneva Carr) has stuck him in a puppet-making class at the local church in the Texas town where they’ve relocated following the death of his father. Repressed desires seethe at the ministry, however, as Pastor Greg (Marc Kudisch, in a change of pace from his musical leads) sweet talks Margery, and an oafish bully Jason’s age, Timothy (Michael Oberholtzer), goes even further. Erupting from this uncomfortable stew is Jason’s project, the sock puppet Tyrone, who cuts through all the crap with his four-letter explosions and sociopathic behavior, including a spectacularly funny makeover of Beowulf Boritt’s basement set. Can fellow withdrawn student Jessica (Sarah Stiles) save Jason from a love affair with his hand even stronger than the one that grips every teenage boy?

Elements of Hand to God are second-hand–the bloodshed is right from Martin McDonagh’s handbook of shock. But Askins offers a corrosive social vision of benighted Texas towns not unlike his own, tempered with a certain affection for residents trying to do the best they can under unusual duress, real and fabricated. It is very funny, and Boyer, leading a cast that’s game for any assault, goes all in as the tormented Jason and his tormenting alter-ego. May it hold on more than by a finger.