BWW Interview: Jason Danieley Talks All About THE VISIT at Williamstown Theatre Festival!
For musical theater fans, the parlor game of summer 2014 has been guessing if the Williamstown Theatre Festival's production of The Visit will transfer to Broadway. Or, for those already convinced it will transfer, guessing when that will happen, which theater it will play, what Tonys it will win.
This is the third regional production of The Visit, a musical completed by John Kander and Fred Ebb in 2000 (Ebb passed away in 2004). Chita Rivera, now 81, has starred in all three as the vengeful Claire Zachanassian, a wealthy woman who returns to her hometown offering a financial bounty for the impoverished burg in exchange for the killing of her former lover, a local shopkeeper named Anton. Based on a play by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, The Visit has a book by Terrence McNally. Its Williamstown cast includes Roger Rees (as Anton), Judy Kuhn, David Garrison and Jason Danieley.
Danieley spoke with BroadwayWorld by phone last week about The Visit, which wraps up its Williamstown run on August 17. Danieley's previous forays into the world of Kander and Ebb include Curtains on Broadway and a 2013 Live From Lincoln Center special that also featured Rivera and Marin Mazzie, Danieley's wife. He and Mazzie have performed together on Broadway in Next to Normal.
Were you in any of the earlier productions of The Visit?
I was in the very first reading with Angela Lansbury and Philip Bosco in about '98 or '99, playing a different part--the son of Anton. Then I was in a reading just prior to the D.C. engagement, in about 2007 or 2008, and I played the role I'm playing now. But never a production.
What has it been like returning to the material?
It's great. I think it deserved to have moved on to Broadway prior to this, but for my good fortune--in a very selfish way--it hasn't, so now I'm able to be part of it. It's always resonated as a very important and endearing piece, so I was just so glad to be able to come back and dive into it, specifically with John Doyle directing, because it's very different as far as storytelling and the stagecraft than previous incarnations.
Does this show feature the signature directorial touches for which John Doyle is known?
Well, one of his most famous trademarks--the actors playing instruments--is not a part of this. We have a great orchestra that handles all that! There's an element of the Grand Guignol theater that you might have seen in Sweeney Todd, with interesting makeup and drab costumes, but it really is its own thing. I think what may be imperceptible to audiences that is a trademark of his--and that people like Terrence McNally and John Kander were attracted to--is his dramaturgical [approach]. His knowledge of the history of theater is so prevalent in this production. He calls upon so many elements of past ways of storytelling: direct address to the audience, a very Brechtian style of direction. He pared it down so it's only 95 minutes long. He pared down anything that was extraneous to the essence of the story, and not every director has that ability. I think people want to make sure there's plenty of humor in the story, and there is plenty of humor in this, but he's pared it down so smartly that it drives like a steam train, just straight through to the end.
Has your portrayal changed since you last played the part?
Because it was a more realistic version the last time I did it, my approach to the character is completely different and, I think, so much more interesting. My character is sort of the last holdout; he's the best friend of Anton, and he's the last one to give in to Claire Zachanassian's wishes to kill him. In the past I thought of him as righteous and the voice of reason, but this time he's just as eager as everybody else in the town--because the town is so destitute, he's starving for money and is as greedy as everybody else. If it were anybody else in the town who was going to be facing death, he might not bat an eyelash. I think in the characterization now, he may be a little more realistic for the audience to see he wants the money as much as everybody else, but his morals kind of pique up at the last moment. It's much more interesting for me to play it in this way.
Can you talk about Chita Rivera's role--not just the role she plays on stage but her role in staying committed to this show through the years?
I don't think there can be enough positive and kind things you can say about Chita. She's really a true gem, a true theater artist. She's devoted her whole life to that, and she's such a great leader. She believes in the show not just as a vehicle for her to get back on Broadway, she believes in what it has to say. I think that's really admirable. Theater audiences who know Chita Rivera and come to the show will appreciate her character, Claire Zachanassian, because there are certain parallels [to what] Chita's been through. Her character has a fake leg--she lost her leg in a plane wreck, and she lost her arm in a car wreck. And if anyone recalls, sometime earlier in her career, Chita had her leg broken in 12 different places. That's the leg she has chosen as the missing leg.
There are certain things that blur the line between Chita and Claire Zachanassian. There's a beautiful pas de deux that she dances with her younger self. And to see her dancing with a beautiful young dancer who really looks like Chita, it makes you think of the years she's been on stage and the knowledge that older Claire has to impart on younger Claire. It's very special. I think it's worth the price of admission just to see that alone.
You mentioned what the play "has to say." Is it relevant to what's currently going on in the world or about humanity in general?
The beauty of it is all that. The original was written 10 years after World War II; Dürrenmatt wrote it as sort of an indictment to Switzerland, who was of course neutral in World War II and capitalized--made money--on the war. Didn't choose a side and just thrived. Now this town in Switzerland is being destroyed and eaten up by capitalism. So there's the evil of money and greed, and also elements of what would you do for money, and the power that comes with money. Claire Zachanassian, who's the richest woman in the world, comes in to "save" the town but in fact she's morally corrupting them. Without getting into our current political situation, I think there's a lot of parallels an audience member can draw from Claire; her henchman, Rudi the butler; and the eunuchs, who are her entourage and are at her beck-and-call and will do anything for her. Taking advantage of these poor people who have no option but to follow the rich. Also: What is our moral responsibility in life, to a lot of things but particularly to love? The love story in this has been very pronounced and really drawn out, without losing the other things that I was speaking of. It's really chockful of things that an audience member can come away with. We had our first talkback and the whole orchestra was full of people--that's very unusual for a theater talkback--and they were all engaged in various aspects of it.
What difference has it made that this production wasn't done in New York?
Because it's been around since '99, and the first production at the Goodman in 2001, the expectations were so high for so long that now it's...not dwindled but refocused. Being in the Berkshires, they're able to get a lot of incredible actors that might not be able to go further afield, but developing it in the city there's the added pressure of: It has to work. For my money this is a world-class production. This production could move directly to Broadway, it could play the West End. I'm not saying that because I'm in it. My wife saw it on Sunday and was just blown away by it. But I think the pressure is relieved from trying to make it to Broadway. It's kind of like the best of all possible worlds, and if it moves to Broadway we'll just get a better paycheck. [Laughs]
Is your character similar in any way to others that you've played?
He's not particularly the leader of a rebellion, except in a very small way, but he does remind me a little bit of Che Guevara in Evita in that he's standing up against this very powerful woman for the rights of the downtrodden. He's sort of the moral center of the piece. But that's kind of stretching. He's very unique, especially in the way that John Doyle allows me to play him: much closer to the morally ambiguous person that people actually are. It's not so black-and-white, he's definitely a gray character, balancing right on the edge.
Anything else you'd like to share for Visit-hungry fans down here in the city?
You should try and grab a ticket to see Chita Rivera doing a career-defining performance. She's truly extraordinary. It sounds like a cliché to wax so poetic on a production, but I'm not making anything up. It's really a dream company, and it could not have a been a better experience for everyone involved. I think we're sold out for the entire run, so I hope that bodes well for the life of the show.
And how are you enjoying the Berkshires outside of the theater?
It's beautiful. It's been the most beautiful summer of the last few years.
Photos, from top: Jason Danieley (right) in The Visit, with (from left) Jude McCormick, Melanie Field, Timothy Shew, Diana DiMarzio and Judy Kuhn; Danieley's headshot; Chita Rivera and Michelle Veintimilla, as young Claire, in The Visit; Rivera with (from left) Tom Nelis as Rudi, Chris Newcomer and Matthew Deming in The Visit. [Visit photos by T. Charles Erickson]