Saturday, May 22, 2021

567. THE VISIT. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

Rachel Roberts, John McMartin. (Photos: Van Williams.)

THE VISIT [Dramatic Revival] A: Friedrich Durrenmatt; AD: Maurice Valencey; D: Harold Prince; S: Edward Burbridge; C: Carolyn Parker; L: Ken Billington; P: New Phoenix Repertory Company; T: Ethel Barrymore Theatre; 11/25/73-2/16/74 (32)

George Ede, Rachel Roberts, Ralph Drischell.

One of three plays produced by the short-lived New Phoenix Repertory Company during the 1973-1974 season, The Visit allowed musical theatre director Hal Prince one of his infrequent opportunities to stage a nonmusical play. Swiss dramatist Durrenmatt’s 1956 tragicomic morality play, his best-known creation (seen on Broadway in 1958 as the opening production at the renamed Lunt-Fontanne Theatre), was given a somberly atmospheric staging, emphasizing its bitter theme of retribution for old wrongs.  

Set in the dying German town of Gullen, it follows a visit there after many years of Clara Zachnassian (Rachel Roberts), a former resident, now the world’s wealthiest woman. Clara offers the townspeople a fabulous sum of money if they will execute Anton Schill (John McMartin). Schill, a respected citizen, got her pregnant when she was 17 and then rejected her. The dilemma faced by the town provides a striking situation expertly exploited by the playwright’s fanciful, sometimes bizarre, cast of characters.

Merwin Goldsmith, Bill Moor, John McMartin, Ralph Drischell, John Glover.

Most critics welcomed the revival, but John Simon was perturbed about the decision to use Maurice Valencey’s loosely adapted version of the play, which he called an “abortion.” There was sharp disagreement over the production’s quality. Clive Barnes, Walter Kerr, and Brendan Gill, for example, thought the direction excellent. Said Barnes, “Mr. Prince’s staging catches the play’s mystery and sense of corruption with a dazzling ease.” The sparse setting was deemed effective by some, Barnes calling it “absolutely right for the swift-moving play.” And the acting, especially by Roberts and McMartin, was generally considered superlative.

On the other hand, John Simon and Harold Clurman thought the direction “amateurish.” Simon said the result was “a tedium composed in equal parts of pretentiousness and ineptitude.” There was, he added, a notable absence of humor. He and Clurman also disparaged the sets as unimaginative, and had little good to say of the performances, which included contributions from Peter Friedman, Bill Moor, Ralph Drischell, George Ede, John Glover, Merwin Goldsmith, David Dukes, Richard Venture, Curt Karabalis, Thomas A. Stewart, and Valentine Mayer.

Despite the critical disagreements, Prince won a Drama Desk Award for his direction, and Ken Billington landed a Tony nomination for his lighting.

A problematic musical version of The Visit, starring Chita Rivera, visited Broadway in 2015. My review can be found here.

Do you enjoy Theatre’s Leiter Side? As you may know, since New York’s theatres were forced into hibernation by Covid-19, this blog has provided daily posts on the hundreds of shows that opened in the city, Off and on Broadway, between 1970 and 1975. These have been drawn from an unpublished manuscript that would have been part of my multivolume Encyclopedia of the New York Stage series, which covers every show, of every type, from 1920 through 1950. Unfortunately, the publisher, Greenwood Press, decided it was too expensive to continue the project beyond 1950.

Before I began offering these 1970-1975 entries, however, Theatre’s Leiter Side posted over 1,600 of my actual reviews for shows from 2012 through 2020. The first two years of that experience were published in separate volumes for 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 (the latter split into two volumes). The 2012-2013 edition also includes a memoir in which I describe how, when I was 72, I used the opportunity of suddenly being granted free access to every New York show to begin writing reviews of everything I saw. Interested readers can find these collections on by clicking here. 

Next up: Vivat! Vivat! Regina.