You can see why the venerable and much-missed Public Theater was determined to stick by its grand musical hope, The Visitor. This world premiere was long-delayed by the pandemic, and had such drama offstage that its lead, the Tony-winning Ariel Sta’chel, left the show just before its opening. But the Public was set on seeing it through, and using The Visitor to herald its own post-pandemic return.
Its makers proudly vouch for the politics of the show, which in earnest, emphatic terms illustrates the appalling way undocumented immigrants are treated in America. This is a musical—music by Tom Kitt, lyrics by Brian Yorkey, book by Yorkey and Kwame Kwei-Armah—that is a stage adaptation of Tom McCarthy’s 2007 film of the same name. The Public hopes the musical makes a timely and piercing point about prejudice, allyship, rigidly unfair laws, and racial injustice. But it does not, and it also doesn’t work as musical theater. Indeed, it falls listlessly, cringingly short.
Just as in the film, bored, restless, and sad academic Walter (David Hyde Pierce) arrives home in New York to find Palestinian-Syrian djembe player Tarek (Ahmad Maksoud) and his Senegalese jewelry maker girlfriend Zainab (Alysha Deslorieux) in his home.
The first weird thing about this is the explanation given: a person known to them but not to Walter has said they could stay there. This mystery is never solved. Sure, New York is full of random events, but Walter seems entirely unmotivated to discover the identity of the person who not only has access to his apartment, but also has set it up as a sublet to two strangers.
Well, he certainly seems lost, grieving the death of his wife, and utterly done with his professional life; the first number is a cry of frustration as he observes his students not paying attention to his lecture on Keynesian economics.
In this musical, music saves part of the day at least. Walter becomes fascinated with Tarek playing his djembe, and the special beat of the drum. So, can Walter find the beat? This, rather than the hell that ICE and its enforcers put Tarek through, becomes the musical’s opening and final concern. Along the way, Tarek’s mom Mouna (Jacqueline Antaramian) appears, and she and Walter enter a nervous courtship.
Maksoud and Antaramian’s warmth and strength as performers stand out and anchor an otherwise disjointed production. This is especially impressive on Maksoud’s part, having stepped into the main role he was an understudy for just days before curtain up.
Yet for a show intended to be a response to the present day, did nobody on the production team think how strange it would be that in November 2021, after George Floyd and every single thing said about the need for more inclusion and diverse storytelling in theater, that this would be the best moment to program a musical that centers a white person’s experience in a narrative whose focus is the indignities faced by people of color?
It doesn’t feel like the right story for now if your aim is to raise voices of color, and center those voices in narratives. Indeed, to part-center them when the real story is apparently about a white guy learning about drum rhythm seems madly—no pun intended—tone-deaf.
Tarek takes Walter to Central Park to see other drummers at play, and on the way back because of a misunderstanding is arrested for attempted fare evasion (he has done nothing wrong). And so his ICE nightmare begins, while Walter continues to fall in love with the drumming his friend has introduced him to. (Can you see my painfully raised eyebrows? Good.)
Only Walter can visit Tarek in custody, because his mom and girlfriend are undocumented and could get arrested if they reveal themselves. These encounters should be charged, right? Emotional and political truths should erupt and be absorbed by both parties, and us? Nope. Walter seems as much of a rabbit in headlights opposite Tarek as he is in every other scene. Their encounters fizzle rather than flare.
Let’s talk about ICE custody as presented in The Visitor. There is a song-and-dance sequence intended to make clear the indignity and anger faced by Tarek and the men around him, but in tone and execution it seems utterly, laughably ridiculous. The words are furious, the dancing is exuberant. It’s bad bonkers.
Zainab is particularly shabbily treated by the story; presented first as a nag frustrated at Tarek hanging out with Walter, and then she’s just shunted out of the story to go and stay with relations—returning only to be dumped for her own good. Zainab is a lesson in how badly women are so often written, yet Deslorieux does her best with an underwritten, one-dimensional role.
At least there is David Zinn’s design, Japhy Weideman’s lighting, David Bengali and Hana S. Kim’s video design, and Lorin Latarro’s choreography which collectively and inventively conspire to find original ways to bring New York streetscapes and subways to teeming life in a small space.
Yet the musical’s bizarre construction and pacing works against them. One can understand why Walter is being played in the way he is—he is your average gruff academic, seemingly detached from the real world around him, and lost in his own head and memories. But Hyde Pierce seems overly stunned in every single scene.
When Tarek is jailed you think this might introduce some urgency and oomph, but no—Walter does and says all the right things about the unfairness and brutality of the system, but also stays inert. His confrontation with an ICE guard should be a moment to play to the hilt, but it just collapses in on itself, with Walter huffing and puffing about how terrible the situation is. Well, yes. And?
The last image is of Walter playing drums, ecstatically, finally feeling the rhythm that Tarek wanted him to feel, while Tarek, Zainab, and Mouna are imagined in a collective jail behind him. Our racist justice and political system will destroy the people it seeks to destroy. But hey, at least Walter can play the drums. Happy ending! If this is inclusive theater, we need to rewrite the memo.