When I read that The Public Theater had in its fall programming a play called The Visitor I wondered if it could possibly be a staged version of the tender and sad 2007 independent film that had touched me deeply. When I found out it was I was intrigued, until I learned it was a musical and then I was skeptical.
As I was right to be. This moving story of an immigrant’s experience in New York is ill-served by singing and, even more, by dancing, with a dozen ensemble members nearly colliding with each other on the small stage of the Newman Theater.
People attending the show who haven’t seen the film, which I saw twice because I was so affected by it the first time, may have a different reaction because the same involving story is there. Walter, a white, late middle-aged economic professor played perfectly by David Hyde Pierce, has more or less given up on life. He has contempt for his students, which he expresses angrily in “Wake Up,” he has taught the same course for 20 years and hates doing so and is on semi-sabbatical, teaching only the one course, so he can write a book that seems to be about as lifeless as he is. “The only thing that changes is the day,” he sings despondently.
A widower, everything about him screams bland — his gray suit (costumes by Toni-Leslie James), gray balding hair and wire-rim glasses. He spends most of his time living in Connecticut but at the play’s opening he makes a rare appearance at his New York City apartment and that’s when his life starts to change. He walks in to find a young couple, Tarek (Ahmad Maksoud) and Zainab (Alysha Deslorieux), living there. Undocumented immigrants, from Syria and Senegal respectively, they have been trying to hide under the radar of detection. When Walter walks in Tarek attacks him, thinking he is an intruder ready to harm Zainab. After a frightened Walter convinces them it is his apartment, they realize they have been swindled by a conman who somehow got Walter’s keys and, knowing he was mostly absent, rented the apartment to them.
They beg Walter not to call the police, gather their things quickly and leave. But luckily for them they have left behind a photo album. Walter runs after them to return it and finds them looking scared and realizes they have nowhere to go. He surprises himself by inviting them back to stay with him. That’s when the beautiful story, and Walter’s transformation, begin.
Tarek is a musician who plays his two African drums in the living room. It’s a delight to watch Hyde Pierce’s Walter eye one of them before tentatively banging out a few sounds, not knowing Tarek is in the bedroom and can hear him. He’s embarrassed when Tarek appears and encourages him to learn a few notes that he demonstrates on the other drum. “Feel the beat in your blood,” Tarek tells him and before long they are playing happily, and well, together. (Music composed by Tom Kitt). The once uptight Walter even joins Tarek and his fellow drummers playing in the park, boldly soloing in the center of the circle. Life is good.
Until it isn’t. Coming home from playing one day Tarek pays his subway fare but his drum gets in his way before he makes it through the turnstile. Rather than pay another fare, he jumps over the bars and is promptly arrested by two police officers, even though Walter explains that he had paid. The police release him into the custody of ICE and he is sent to a squalid detention center.
I won’t give away the ending except to say that Tarek’s mother, Mouna (Jacqueline Antaramian), arrives from Michigan where she has lived since she left Syria with Tarek when he was a baby. She and Walter bond as they try to free Tarek with the help of the immigration attorney Walter hires.
Director Daniel Sullivan keeps the story moving until a song (lyrics by Brian Yorkey) or dance (choreography by Lorin Latarro) interrupt. I’ve seen other musicals adapted from small films I’ve liked — Once comes to mind — and haven’t felt the singing and dancing were intrusive but I did here.
The show’s book writer, Kwame Kwei-Armah, said in the program notes that he wanted the power of the human gaze “to focus that gaze for the length of the piece, and, we hope, a little beyond, on the power we have collectively to change course, to advocate for justice and to enlarge everyone’s portion, no matter of station or privilege.” As the book writer, he has been successful in this.
Oskar Eustis, The Public’s artistic director, also commented on the importance of this story: “The movie on which our musical is based, Tom McCarthy’s powerful 2007 film, “The Visitor,” was created in the shadow of 9/11. It sought to shake America’s conscience, to combat the anti-immigrant and anti-Arab ugliness that was taking deeper root in our culture, and to wake us to the moral obligations we had to the world.”
Sadly the anti-immigrant and anti-Arab ugliness are still with us. If this musical works for people as strongly as the movie did for so many of us, then we can be grateful.