By Donna Herman
The Band’s Visit is a modern Middle-Eastern fairy tale of a musical. Based on the 2007 Israeli film by Eran Kolirin, the stage version has a book by Itamar Moses and music and lyrics by David Yazbak. Directed by the brilliant David Cromer, it’s being presented by The Atlantic Theater Company. These days it’s hard to find a quiet little spark of hope and humanity reflected at us from any direction, let alone the Middle East. So, I was delighted to find my tight muscles relaxing, and my smile growing as The Band’s Visit unfolded.
The official Band of the Alexandria, Egypt Police Force has arrived at a bus station in Israel. They have been invited to perform at the opening ceremonies of the new Arab cultural center in the town of Petah Tikvah outside Tel Aviv. The six-member band in their bright blue “Michael Jackson” uniforms, led by uptight, by-the-book conductor Tewfiq (Tony Shalhoub), must now buy tickets for their final destination.
Haled (Ari’el Stachel), their trumpet player, and resident horn-dog, is charged with purchasing the tickets. Unfortunately, Haled can’t stay on task when confronted with a young female, inevitably complementing her eyes and breaking into a crooning version of “My Funny Valentine.” This unfortunate propensity, combined with the fact that there is no “P” sound in the Egyptian language, lands the band in the middle of the southern Negev desert at Bet Hatikva. Not in the north at Petah Tikvah.
The band gets off the bus in what they think is their final destination, in front of a little cafe. To be sure, they are a curious sight in this little Israeli desert town where there is nothing but the café and an apartment complex. And where absolutely nothing ever happens, and where the residents seem to do nothing but wait for something…anything…different to happen.
Itzik (John Cariani) and Papi (Daniel David Stewart), the café’s workers who are hanging around with nothing to do, call for the owner Dina (Katrina Lenk) when Tewfiq appears and greets them. Apparently, when something different finally happens, they are dumbfounded. Remember the adage, be careful what you wish for.
ITZIK Where are you from?
TEWFIQ We are from Egypt.
ITZIK (Wow!) Egypt!
TEWFIQ Um. Yes.
DINA And who invite you?…
TEWFIQ The Betah Tikva Cultural Department.
ITZIK Petah Tikva? Or Bet Hatikva?
TEWFIQ Betah Tikva…
DINA Do you need Petah Tikva?
TEWFIQ Yes. Betah Tikva.
DINA, ITZIK (Variously.) No, not Bet Ha. Petah. Not Beh. Peh. Peh. Peh. Petah Tikva.
DINA There is not Arab Center here.
TEWFIQ No Arab Culture Center?
DINA No. Not culture, not Israeli Culture, not Arab, not culture at all.
There are many ways The Band’s Visit could have gone from here. But the quiet brilliance of this fairy tale is that nobody is angry, nobody is frightened, and nobody is threatened by the appearance of someone from another tribe in their midst. Instead, funny thing, the Jews and Arabs all behave like, well…neighbors! They extend hospitality, accept it gratefully, and listen non-judgmentally to each other. They offer sympathy and understanding and generally leave each other better than they found them just by having been there.
Now don’t get your undies in a twist, this is not a treacly sweet confection that will leave you with rotting teeth. No this is fine dining at its best. The creators of the meal, inspired by Eran Kolirin’s original, Itamar Moses and David Yazbek, have incorporated something for every taste. A little sweet but not sappy in the relationship that develops between the suave Haled and the fumbling Papi. The shaggy, terminally shy, Papi (played with bumbling perfection by Daniel David Stewart) sings his confession that around girls “if they have breasts and they’re not my mother” all he hears is the sea. The experienced Haled shows him how to melt the ice and his fears in a heart stopping song “Haled’s Song About Love”.
And the relationship between the hardened, sarcastic, café owner Dina and the tightly controlled, rigid Tewfiq provides the sauce with a tinge of smoky, salty bitterness with a hint of something unnamed as she shows him around town for the evening. Both Shalhoub and Lenk embody tightly controlled longing, with hints of remorse and failure that have brought them to this point. Both stunning performances, and the two best accents in the cast.
But the real star of the show is David Cromer’s staging on Scott Pask’s innovative set. Essentially, three concentric rings on different turntables. There aren’t many set pieces, but there are no annoying scene changes. Because the set and people flow seamlessly on and off stage as the rings turn or stay still as needed. It gives a marvelous sense of continuous movement and life and we never lose interest or momentum. Bravo.
The Band’s Visit Music & Lyrics by David Yazbek. Book by Itamar Moses based on the screenplay by Eran Kolirin, Directed by David Cromer
WITH: George Abud (Camal); Bill Army (Zelger); John Cariani (Itzhak); Katrina Lenk (Dina); Erik Liberman (Telephone Guy); Andrew Polk (Avrum); Rachel Prather (Julia); Jonathan Raviv (Sammy); Sharone Sayegh (Anna); Tony Shalhoub (Tewfiq); Kristen Sieh (Iris); Ari’el Stachel (Haled); Daniel David Stewart (Papi); Alok Tewari (Simon)
Choreography by Lee Sher; music director, Andrea Grody; orchestrations by Jamshied Sharifi; music contractor, Dean Sharnow; scenic design by Scott Pask; costume deisgn by Sarah Laux; lighting design by Tyler Micoleau; production stage manager Richard A. Hodge. Presented by The Atlantic Theater Company, Neil Pepe, Artistic Director; Jeffrey Lawson, Managing Director. Through Jan. 1, 2017 at 336 West 20th Street. Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission. For tickets visit: https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/34237