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Entertainment Weekly

Theater

The Band's Visit is a sweet, haunting stopover in the desert: EW stage review

Matthew Murphy

Posted on

The Arabic language doesn’t have an equivalent to the English letter “p” in its alphabet.

That might have something to do with why an Egyptian military band traveling to Israel for a performance accidentally arrives not in the metropolitan Petah Tikvah, but instead in the (fictional) Bet Hatikva, a tiny dot of concrete in the middle of the Negev desert — that’s Bet Hatikva, with a “b,” as in “blah, blah, blah.”

With no hotels and no bus out until the next morning, Bet Hatikva residents agree to allow the the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, all dressed in their robins-egg blue military-style uniforms, to stay for the night.

For a musical centered on an unexpected collision of a group of Egyptians and a group of Israelis, there is almost no talk of politics in The Band’s Visit. No one mentions religion or war. The centuries of geopolitical conflict underlying the story’s premise are like a metaphorical held breath —and the show itself is a slow, easy exhale. This is a musical about people, not countries.

Many of the strongest scenes come directly from Eran Kolirin’s 2007 film of the same name, including the memorable moment in which the band’s Chet Baker-loving ladies man is able to wordlessly instruct the awkward Papi on the art of seduction. But everything is elevated by David Yazbek’s (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) haunting music and deadpan lyrics that perfectly capture the Israeli humor that made the original movie such a favorite among critics and viewers.

In her role as Dina, the owner of a cafe in town, Katrina Lenk (Indecent) is dazzling. It’s her gestures, down to the way she cuts watermelon or arches one eyebrow, that stay with you after the curtain falls, even if her chemistry with the wonderfully buttoned-up bandleader Tewfiq (Tony Shalhoub) seems a bit asymmetrical. “Dark and thrilling, strange and sweet,” Lenk sings about her childhood fascination with Egyptian culture, her voice embodying everything she fantasized about.

But perhaps the most important character in The Band’s Visit might be the unnamed Israeli boy who stands by the one payphone in town, waiting all night for his girlfriend to call, his desperate face illuminated by its harsh fluorescent. This is a play about waiting, and loneliness, and the human need to connect with another human, even if it’s someone separated by a one-way telephone call that might not happen. The show itself leaves the audience waiting, in some ways, for the type of climax that never comes. There are no elaborately choreographed dance sequences or dramatic betrayals or plot twists. The only revelation is that there are no revelations; that humans and their petty, internal concerns, their hopes and failures, are worthy enough to sing about.

“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,” the musical begins. And so what are we left with as audience members after spending an hour and a half in the company of people simply meeting and listening to music and spending time together before parting ways? The sound of Lenk’s mellifluous voice, the tiny Israeli details, the flickers of emotion that challenge Tewfiq’s restraint. The audience is left like the characters are left after the night of the band’s visit in Bet Hatikvah: the same, ostensibly, but with the world colored slightly differently.

The Band’s Visit is understated, probably better described as charming than life-altering, but its scale reinforces the moral themes of the musical itself. Nothing very important happens, no. A boy learns how to talk to girls, a woman recognizes the ways in which she’s become stuck, a couple breaks apart and comes together again. Some of these humans who have lost things and who are lost themselves happen to be Arab, and some happen to be Israeli. It’s a quiet, beautiful thing The Band’s Visit does, and while I wished there had been more something — more emotional payoff, or catharsis — I also recognize that that’s sort of the point. A-

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