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Theatre in Review: The Band's Visit (Ethel Barrymore Theatre)

Katrina Lenk, Tony Shalhoub. Photo: Matt Murphy

The people behind The Band's Visit have set themselves a seemingly impossible task: to make a musical out of material so low-key, so intently focused, that it barely counts as an anecdote, with a cast of characters who, even when they speak the same language, rarely communicate with more than a grunt or a grumble. It's a basic rule that music should step in when the characters' emotions run so high that mere words are no longer enough. In a conventional musical, music, like June, should be busting out all over. How can this methodology apply when everyone onstage is bored, uncomfortable, mourning a loss, or nursing a grudge?

The simple, elegant answer is that in The Band's Visit, a show about entertaining strangers, music becomes the lingua franca, the only way that connections -- even fleeting ones -- can be made. If Itamar Moses' book is, intentionally, a kind of still-life portrait, David Yazbek's songs provide the color and movement -- a sense of something meaningful, if ineffable, happening -- that makes us care about these apparently cramped souls thrown together by chance.

It is surely no coincidence that the plot is triggered by a linguistic error. As in Eran Kolirin's 2007 film of the same name, the members of a police band from Egypt are scheduled to play at the opening of an Arabic cultural center in the Israeli town of Petah Tikvah. For those not fluent in Hebrew, this name sounds very much like Bet Hatikva -- which is how, thanks to a misunderstanding at a bus station ticket booth, the band members end up, by accident, in a town that is little more than a speck of dust in the middle of the desert. Or, as the disaffected locals put it, "Pick a sandhill of your choosing/Take some bricks that no one's using/Build some buildings/Put some Jews in/Then, blah blah blah/Bet Hatikva!"

Since the last bus for the day has departed, there is nothing to be done, and Dina, who runs a local café, organizes the locals to take in the wayward musicians for the night. They readily agree, if for no other reason than Dina is not someone you want to cross: She enters, leaning back slightly in a stance that is two parts boredom and one part defiance, hands on the back of her hips, her mask-like face turned upward like a sunflower, all but daring the universe to make something interesting happen -- all the while remaining sure, with a knowing smirk, that today will blend into tomorrow and the day after that in a never-ending blur of routine. Katrina Lenk doesn't so much play the role as inhabit it; her Dina is the spirit of Bet Hatikva: tough, skeptical, dryly amused at the pointlessness of it all.

Homes are opened, but social relations between the embarrassed Egyptians and taciturn Israelis are awkward at best, both sides eyeing each other warily as they look for common ground. Since they are separated by language, they resort to English, everyone's second tongue, to provide some kind of halting communication. Everyone is on a level linguistic playing field, all of them equally ill at ease. But then, at a dinner table where conversation has ground to a halt, Avrum, a widower, when asked how he met his late wife, explodes with a joy so assertive that it verges on fury. He's a musician, and one day the love of his life walked into a wedding reception where he was playing -- and as he sings "Love starts on a downbeat/Love starts when the music starts/Love starts when the tune is sweet/And you lift your feet/To the beat of your heart." Suddenly, everyone is pounding the dinner table in sheer exhilaration, sharing his memory. (Here as elsewhere, Yazbek uses the minor chords and intricate rhythms of Middle-Eastern pop music to consistently infectious effect.)

This pattern repeats throughout the evening. Haled is the band's in-house womanizer ("Do you like Chet Baker?" is his standard line, delivered somewhere between a croon and a whisper) but his wooings are generally hapless and, in an unguarded moment, he reveals that, on his return to Egypt, he will enter into a marriage arranged by his parents. This trip is his last hurrah before commencing a life of placid domesticity with a woman he doesn't really know. Observing Papi, a local teenager so clumsy that, trying to make conversation with a girl, he unwittingly knocks her down, Haled, the sleepy-eyed lounge lizard, takes the youth in hand, gracefully giving him a lesson in how to conduct a romance. ("You're here, she's here/Two drops of water/The pull, the pull/Invisible but really real.") The number is called "Haled's Song About Love," and it is all the more poignant for our knowing that he will not have another chance to apply these rules in his own life.

Meanwhile, Dina has taken Tewfiq, the band's conductor and head officer, under her wing. Tewfiq, as played by Tony Shalhoub, is so profoundly uncomfortable that one might think his baby blue police uniform was made of wet, scratchy wool. Dina has an absent husband and an unsatisfactory married lover, whom she is not above humiliating in public, but she is intrigued by Tewfiq -- his reserve and old-fashioned formality. In a local restaurant, he sits, shoulders straight, knees pressed together, struggling to find something to say; Dina playfully tries to draw him out. They bond, ever so slightly, over a shared love for the pulpy Egyptian romantic films of a previous generation. Luxuriating in her memories, a cat lost in a bowl of cream, she delivers the achingly lovely "Omar Sharif," seeing once again, through her youthful eyes, how the star and his leading ladies "came floating on a Jasmine wind/From the West, from the South/Honey in my ears/Spice in my mouth." When then number is over, we know so much more about her life, its foolish dreams and accumulated losses.

And so it goes, music erupting out of nowhere, providing the electricity that allows strangers to see each other clearly, then fading away into silence. When I saw The Band's Visit Off Broadway last year, I worried that the director, David Cromer, had let a little too much dead air sneak into the proceedings. But the show has expanded to fit the Barrymore stage and now each pause vibrates with unspoken feelings. The cast, most of them holdovers from the Atlantic Theater production, know how to play each nuance for maximum value. In addition to Shalhoub and Lenk, whose delicate gavotte of not-quite romance provides the show with its melancholy heart, there are several other standouts. Andrew Polk's Avrum turbocharges the number "Beat of My Heart" with the character's surprising lust for life. Ari'el Stachel's Haled is amusingly transparent when trying to impress the ladies, and genuinely touching when staring into his conventional, planned-out future. John Cariani honestly renders the lost-boy qualities of Itzik, a young husband and father, who has more or less given up on the idea of finding a job. Etai Benson is funny and touching as Papi, who, when confronted with female companionship, flies into a panic, hearing only the roar of the ocean -- which, incidentally, is far, far away.

In addition, Cromer crafts any number of memorable images: the interior of a tacky roller disco turned into a romantic getaway by a mirror ball effect that fills the entire space; a lamplit living room/bedroom where the band's clarinetist delicately plays a tune that soothes a crying baby as well as his warring parents; a young man camped out next to a street telephone, mentally willing it to ring with the girl he loves at the other end; the entire company, assembled, yet each isolated in his or her own light, staring into the distance, hoping for happiness that may never come.

The design team is perfectly in synch with this funny/sad, sardonic/tender piece. Scott Pask's set, a collection of boxy tan buildings with the far horizon painted on them, seems to have risen up out of a desert sandstorm. Tyler Micoleau's lighting provides time-of-day looks ranging from sunrise to moonlight; such effects as a stream of orange light, entering through a doorway, add welcome touches of color. (He also creates some amusingly gaudy disco lighting with plenty of saturated colors.) Among other things Maya Ciarrocchi's projections fill out the stage pictures with strikingly ghostly reflections of the characters and expansive images of the sky. Sarah Laux's costumes draw a strong contrast between the band members in their uniforms and the locals, who favor jeans, shorts, and t-shirts. Kai Harada's sound design achieves a total transparency.

More than once in The Band's Visit, we are told, "Once not long ago, a group of musicians came to Israel from Egypt. You probably didn't hear about it. It wasn't very important." Well, maybe, maybe not. Moses, Yazbek, and company have built their drama out of a dozen seemingly inconsequential encounters that, added up, constitute a coming-together that neither the citizens of Bet Hatikva nor their visitors are likely to forget. As Dina sings, "Nothing is as beautiful as something you didn't expect." The Band's Visit is, in many ways, the opposite of what many of us expect from a musical, but it has a keenly observing eye; a compassionate, thoroughly unsentimental heart; and plenty of gorgeous music. It's an original, and well worth a stopover. -- David Barbour

(9 November 2017)

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