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The Visitor

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - November 4, 2021

David Hyde Pierce and Ahmad Maksoud
Photo by Joan Marcus
"Am I preaching to the choir?" asks Walter, the suddenly-woke character played by David Hyde Pierce in the Public Theater's production of the angsty clarion call that is The Visitor, a new musical that invites us to shed tears and openly rage in frustration at the plight of undocumented immigrants.

Unfortunately, the answer to Walter's query, directed at the audience during the show's fiery 11 o'clock number, is most definitely "yes." That song, a burning plea to "find our better angels, and our country's stolen soul" does indeed preach to the choir, or at least to the "choir" that makes up the typical audience at the social justice-leaning Public Theater. And that is problematic for a show that tells us what we already know while offering no means of ameliorating the core issue.

The Visitor, directed by Daniel Sullivan, with a book by Kwame Kwei-Armah and Brian Yorkey (who also wrote the lyrics) and music by Tom Kitt, is based on the 2007 film of the same name. It tells of Walter, a lost, lonely, and most unhappy economics professor who inexplicably becomes involved in the lives of a young undocumented immigrant couple. Walter meets up with Tarek (Ahmad Maksoud) and Zainab (Alysha Deslorieux) in a most contrived fashion; they are living without his knowledge or permission in his apartment when he shows up after a long absence.

For no apparent reason, other than to move the story forward, Walter takes to the couple, especially the always bright and cheerful Tarek. So instead of kicking them out or calling the police, he invites them to stay. Tarek returns the good deed by teaching Walter to drum and brings him to join an exuberant drum circle of friends. All is going happily along until the fateful day that Tarek has a minor run-in with the police that ends up with his being handcuffed and placed in the hands of ICE agents.

The musical, which takes far too many shortcuts and makes poor use of its one-dimensional characters, might be better viewed as a parable to carry its message, a cri de coeur on behalf of a particular subset of undocumented immigrants. These are the ones known as "dreamers" who were brought to this country as young children and who have grown up for all intents and purposes as Americans. While politicians hem and haw over their status, they face the very real possibility of being deported to countries they have no connection with. In The Visitor, the stand-in for all such "dreamers" is Tarek, who was brought here from his native Syria and grew up in Michigan. Now he is in New York, trying to keep a relatively low profile while pursuing his own dream of being a musician.

After Tarek's arrest, Walter arranges for an immigration attorney to take his case. He is joined in the fight by Tarek's mother Mouna (Jacqueline Antaramian), though she, too, risks deportation, as does Zainab, an immigrant from Senegal. At one point in the show, Mouna and Zainab meet up on the Staten Island Ferry. As the ferry passes the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, the women sing a number called "Lady Liberty." Sample lyrics: "Hey Liberty Lady, Statuesque Lady/What do you hide in that robe?/Orphans from over the globe?" At the risk of sounding curmudgeonly, it's a bit much.

Overall, the cast does its best with material that is onionskin thin. Ahmad Maksoud is a charmer as the optimistic Tarek, a role he recently took over after Ari'el Stachel pulled out following lengthy discussions with the staff and creative team over the portrayal of the immigrant characters. Alysha Deslorieux and Jacqueline Antaramian as Zainab and Mouna do their best with the little they are given to do, and they leave us wanting to know more about these courageous women. For his part, David Hyde Pierce performs as if understanding his primary place is to serve as a sounding board for the play's social justice theme and represent the "million old and scared white men" who need to "wake up just like me."

The songwriting team of Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey are perhaps best known for their work on Next to Normal, which deals in a complex way with the very difficult problem of mental illness. Here, everything has been distilled to the level of cliché and is thrust at us in a 90-minute twitter-feed version of a truly difficult and controversial set of issues. What's the use of allowing us to leave the theater thinking that the best we can do on behalf of the Tareks, the Zainabs, and the Mounas living in this country under the shadow of deportation is to join a drum circle?

The Visitor
Through December 5, 2021
Public Theater, Newman Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, New York NY
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