By Lucy Komisar
There are two good parts to “The Visitor.” Written by Kwame Kwei-Armah and Brian Yorkey. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. Based on a 2007 film.
The first is when the sallow-faced economics professor (David Hyde Pierce) attempts to educate his students about the worst neoliberal economists of our age (Samuelson, others) though he doesn’t call them that. The students, pretty much all of much darker skins, are half or occasionally all asleep, and I didn’t blame them. A very funny and unintended satire of establishment economics.
The second is the professor’s very passionate – no – raging, excoriation of the American political system that condemns many asylum seekers to certain death in the dictatorships they fled, as has in fact been proved. He declares,
“And we must find our better angels,
And our country’s stolen soul.
And remember where we came from.
And make what’s broken whole.
For we were born in revolution
And we were built on rights of men
When we fight, we say for freedom
Will we know freedom once again?”
But you have to play the race card!
“It’s such a poor, pathetic sight:
One old white man, one errant knight,
Awakened to this world at last.”
May I remind you that massive deportations of asylum seekers were overseen by black President Barak Obama and his black Attorney General Eric Holder, followed by black Attorney General Loretta Lynch, all bereft of “better angels.”
In between, the play is a hokey soap opera, filled with heart-tugging stuff about two lovers, our hero Tarek (Ahmad Maksoud) from Syria and Zainab (Alysha Deslorieux) from Senegal, his brave mother Mouna (Jacqueline Antaramian), and Walter, an uptight lonely man who finds meaning in trying to help a stranger caught in the ICE vise.
There are some nice parts in the prison, the men in choreographed movements, and an African drumming jumping, twisting street dancing segment in a park, a diversion in more ways than one. (Choreography by Lorin Latarro.) And the story moves along as you would expect of anything directed by the expert Daniel Sullivan.
But this play, which is supposed to be political, does not bother to mention the political reasons that made these two seek asylum. Almost in passing, there’s a reference to Tarek’s father who was imprisoned for something he wrote and died shortly after being released. The inference is he was tortured. His mother fears Tarek, if deported, will end up like that.
But wait a minute, Syria is deemed by the U.S. to be an enemy. Wouldn’t the family of a dissident be welcomed? No discussion of that.
Zainab is from Senegal. According to the U.S. State Department: “Senegal is a partner of the U.S. in promoting peace and security in Africa. The country shares many fundamental values and international goals with the U.S., and it has set an example of democratic rule as well as ethnic and religious tolerance.”
There’s no indication she was a political refugee, just seeking economic improvement. Couldn’t the writers find an African country run by a dictator?
Walter usually stays in Connecticut, but he is in New York for an academic conference and goes home to his city place. There he finds Tarek and Zainab who have been given the keys by “Ivan.” In an unusual spirit of kindness, Walter lets them stay. Nobody cares to find out about Ivan, which is another unlikely plot void. (Who is Ivan? How does he have keys? Has he done this before? Will the police be informed?)
This is a musical, but most of the “music” is noisy and uninspiring, and lyrics, when I could hear or understand them, are not interesting. (Music by Tom Kitt; Lyrics by Brian Yorkey.) However, I liked the Zainab-Mouna duo when they ride the Staten Island Ferry and sing “Liberty Lady” to the statue: “We need you here.” Good voices, tuneful music, clear lyrics.
The rest is Tarek teaching Walter to play an African drum, Walter’s visits to the ICE prison, getting an immigration lawyer, everybody’s angst. I think the play’s creators meant well, but putting on a good play on a political subject requires more than being “woke” and tugging on emotions. It might even require dealing with the politics of the story.
“The Visitor.” Public Theater – Newman Theater. Book by Kwame Kwei-Armah and Brian Yorkey; Directed by Daniel Sullivan. Music by Tom Kitt; Lyrics by Brian Yorkey; Choreography by Lorin Latarro. 425 Lafayette St., New York City. 212-967-7555. Runtime 1:30. Opened Nov. 4, 2021. Closes Nov. 28, 2021. Review on NY Theatre-Wire.