by Michael Bracken
With a “B” or with a “P”?
That’s the question that must be answered by the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra in The Band’s Visit at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater. Lucky for us, the Egyptian musicians give the wrong response. So, instead of going to Petah Tikvah, the Israeli city where they have been invited to play, they end up in Bet Hatikvah, a speck of a town in the middle of nowhere.
Two very funny numbers, straddling the band’s arrival, explain the difference between the two places. In Petah Tikvah, with a “P,” there’s art and culture and fun.
But in Bet Hatikvah, with a “B,” life is boring, barren, bleak, and beige. Dina (the fabulous Katrina Lenk), the café owner, sings, “Stick a pin in a map of the desert . . . build a road . . . pour cement. That’s Bet Hatikvah.”
The initial songs are spirited, catchy with just a hint of dissonance to match the Bet Hatikvahns’ cynicism. As the musical progresses, and the Egyptians and Israelis connect, the dissonance disappears. Melodies grow sweeter while the clever lyrics (both lyrics and score by David Yazbek) take on an often touching quality. Itamar Moses’s book, based on the 2008 Israeli film, is straightforward, with the same puckish sense of humor as the lyrics.
There are no more buses the day of the band’s arrival, and there are no hotels in Bet Hatikvah. So Dina offers, with her customer Itzik’s (John Cariani) help, to put the band up for the night.
They split into three. Tewfiq (Tony Shalhoub), the bandleader and a colonel, and Haled (Ari’el Stachel), a Romeo arguably responsible for their plight, go to Dina’s apartment. Camal (George Abud) and Simon (Alok Tewari) go with Itzik. The others camp out in the café.
Dina takes Tewfiq out to a restaurant. They find they share affection for the same Egyptian movie stars, they run into Dina’s sometime lover, and Tewfiq talks about his deceased wife and fishing. They sing to each other, she in English, he in Arabic. In the beautiful, lyrical “Something Different,” she wonders what he’s saying and what she’s feeling.
Dina’s brash and bold, with a speaking voice as sharp as the knife she uses to cut watermelon. But in Lenk’s hands her innate warmth is unquestionable. She’s genuine and generous, a light without a shade. Her singing voice is strong and sexy and sure of itself. The unaffected self-mockery she displays speaking is subtler when she’s singing; it’s mesmerizing no matter what she’s doing.
Tewfiq is stylistically her opposite. Decorous and disciplined, he’s always in control. Shalhoub’s portrayal is pitch perfect: his body erect, his voice steady, his movements measured. He’s more old-fashioned than uptight, but he’s pretty uptight as well.
Meanwhile Haled goes out and joins Papi (Daniel David Stewart), who’s too shy to know how to approach Julia (Rachel Prather). For once in his life, Haled forgoes the chase. Instead of pursuing Julia himself, he helps Papi, a quick study, find his way.
There are more cross-currents at Itzik’s, where he and his wife, Iris (Kristen Sieh) are at odds, while her father, Avrum (Andrew Polk), Camal, and Simon watch. It takes a while, but eventually food, drink, talk, and especially song allay the tension.
Yazbek and Moses’s collaboration is symbiotic in the best sense, as The Band’s Visit glides smoothly back and forth between dialogue and song. Yazbek’s score consistently captures the moment. Upbeat pop and unsentimental ballads, even a whiff of Klezmer, are all supported by humor.
David Cromer’s direction is just as silky, as the action flows among various locations. Scott Pask’s deceptively simple set uses a minimal amount of furniture to create a café here and a living room there, a street corner wherever. There’s a small turntable with an even smaller one inside it. They move in opposite directions, allowing the play’s characters to do the same, or not.
The Band’s Visit. Through December 23rd at Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater (336 West 20 Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues). www.atlantictheater.org 100 minutes with no intermission.
Photos: Ahron R. Foster