WILLIAMSTOWN — When a regal billionaire played by Chita Rivera in “The Visit’’ told her ex-lover that “I’m unkillable’’ Saturday night, the audience at Williamstown Theatre Festival burst into knowing applause.
At 81, Rivera has certainly overcome her share of challenges — and so has “The Visit,’’ a musical with a complicated production history that is now alive and well at Williamstown under the expert ministrations of director John Doyle.
Costarring Roger Rees, with music by John Kander, lyrics by the late Fred Ebb, and a book by the playwright Terrence McNally, “The Visit’’ is an engrossing meditation, somber and darkly funny by turns, on love gone wrong, on the slippery slope of human morality once greed enters the picture, on revenge, corruption, and hypocrisy.
It probably goes without saying that all of those base impulses are pitches in the creative wheelhouse of Kander & Ebb, the team behind “Cabaret,’’ “Chicago,’’ and “Kiss of the Spider Woman’’ (the latter two of which starred Rivera). There’s no showstopping number in “The Visit’’ to rival the title tune from “Cabaret,’’ or “All That Jazz,’’ from “Chicago.’’ But the production at Williamstown has its own considerable strengths, its director chief among them.
A Tony Award winner for his 2005 revival of “Sweeney Todd,’’ Doyle is known for a minimalist aesthetic. “The Visit’’ is a streamlined version of the show that premiered 13 years ago at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, was produced again in 2008 at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va., and has yet to make it to Broadway. “The Visit’’ reminds us that the key to Doyle’s technique over the years is that he doesn’t leave out anything vital. It’s not just cutting for the sake of cutting; what he’s after is essence. A passionate heart beats inside “The Visit,’’ for all its formal innovation and chilly beauty.
One Doyle trademark is missing in the 95-minute, one-act production, which the director has pared from the original two acts: The cast members do not play their own musical instruments, as was the case in “Sweeney Todd,’’ Doyle’s 2006 revival of “Company,’’ and his haunting Rodgers and Hart revue “Ten Cents a Dance’’ at Williamstown three summers ago.
The transaction at the core of “The Visit,’’ a musical adaptation of an astringent 1956 tragicomedy by Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt, could not be more direct or fraught with high stakes for all concerned. It’s the dead of winter, and elderly Claire Zachanassian, played by Rivera, has returned after many decades to her hometown of Brachen. Described as located “somewhere in Europe,’’ Brachen is a gloomy and dismal place, mired in poverty and rancor and populated by townspeople who seem too weary to wash their grimy faces.
Claire, who was poor and treated none too well by those townspeople during her youth, is now swathed in jewels and furs. She explains her wealth to them in song: “It’s really not a secret / So I’m more than pleased to tell / I married very often / And I widowed very well.’’ She’s wealthy enough to buy whatever she wants, including her version of justice.
Toward that end, Claire has a proposition for residents of the bankrupt town: She will give Brachen the staggering sum of 10 billion marks . . . if they kill her onetime lover, a local shopkeeper named Anton Schell, played by Rees. Claire has her reasons; she was grievously wronged by Anton. The question on which “The Visit’’ pivots is: Will the townspeople — including Anton’s wife, portrayed by Judy Kuhn; his daughter, played by Melanie Field; and his son, played by Jude McCormick — remain loyal to him, or will financial temptation drive them so far as to commit murder?
The tidal pull of that temptation is suggested in a clever and ominous ensemble number titled “Yellow Shoes,’’ one of several where Doyle mines the gallows humor of McNally’s script and Kander and Ebb’s score. Often, though, an elegiac mood suffuses “The Visit,” enhanced by a crucial change Doyle made to the original production: The young versions of Claire and Anton, played by Michelle Veintimilla and John Bambery, are now ever-present onstage, watching or circling around the action.
Like many of Doyle’s ideas, it’s simple but inspired, because it universalizes Claire and Anton’s (admittedly extreme) circumstances, forcing us to constantly measure the distance between what we want to be and what we become. The notion is further underscored in a lovely pas de deux between Rivera and Veintimilla, where elderly, wistful Claire and youthful, full-of-dreams Claire come literally face to face.
But it is the maybe-not-quite-over relationship between Claire and Anton that compels our attention. Though Rees’s Anton is a faintly absurd figure in the early going, possessed of the random enthusiasm of a superannuated sheepdog, he eventually acquires a poignant aspect along with a measure of self-knowledge.
As for Rivera, who starred in the recent Broadway revival of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,’’ she delivers a precisely controlled performance that draws on the magnetic stage presence audiences have found compelling since 1957’s “West Side Story.’’ Her career appears to be unkillable, and who on earth would want to?