“Once, not long ago, a group of musicians came to Israel from Egypt,” this magical musical begins. “You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t very important.”
In fact, nothing earth-shattering happens in this play. But everything that matters does.
There is, amazingly and mercifully, no talk of Islam, or Judaism—no mention of religion at all. The wars that made Egyptians and Israelis enemies for so long and which keep them apart to this day go unmentioned. Nor is there a word about the fractured peace that once made an Israeli invitation to a group of Egyptian musicians possible but unlikely today given Egypt’s cultural boycott of most things Israeli. There is no recitation by the play’s Egyptian or Israeli characters of their nation’s unending grievances, accusations or demands. There is no gun over the mantel, no suicide to prevent or murder to solve. But The Band’s Visit achieves something rare these days, particularly on Broadway: It explores in the most subtle, riveting way what it means to be human—what it means to be lonely, if not alone, and to wait for someone to come along, or something to happen to change one’s life, or even the scenery. The emptiness touches a musician in Alexandria, Egypt’s second-largest city and a bustling port by the sea, as much as an Israeli stuck in the fictional town of Bet Hatikva, somewhere in the Negev desert, a forsaken place that lacks a hotel or even a proper park.
How does the eight-member Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra wind up in the middle of nowhere, Israel? By mistake.
Those who loved Israeli director Eran Kolirin’s magnificent 2007 film of the same name may recall the source of the confusion—the Arab language’s conflation of “b” and “p,” the latter of which has no precise equivalent in Arabic. Seeking to travel to Petah Tikvah, where it has been invited to inaugurate the city’s Arab cultural center, the band mistakenly buys bus tickets instead to Bet Hatikva. That’s Bet with a “B,” as Dina, (Katrina Lenk) the café owner, explains to them. Having missed the last bus to anywhere else, the musicians have no place to stay ’til morning. Dina reluctantly offers to take them in and volunteers friends to do the same.
The Band’s Visit is about this single, singular encounter.
The play closely tracks the film’s unforgettable characters and often mundane events. Haled, the band’s Chet Baker-loving ladies man, (Ari’el Stachel) teaches the shy Papi (Etai Benson) how to seduce a woman; a married couple break up, and then make up; a young man waits endlessly in front of a pay phone that never rings; Dina waits for her luck to change, knowing all too well that it hasn’t and won’t.
Sarah Laux’s costumes highlight the cultural differences between the Egyptians and Israelis. When first seen on stage, the Egyptians are wearing starch-stiff, robin’s-egg-blue military uniforms, as crisp and bright as the Israelis are informal and drab in their khaki-colored shorts, earth-tone T-shirts, and rubber sandals.
As the night unfolds, the Egyptians unwind and the Israelis reveal that they are more than their often cynical demeanor and self-deprecating humor suggest. Music—be it played in this backwater town’s concrete park, a florescent-lit café, a ’70s-style disco roller rink, a postage-stamp-size apartment, or a cramped living room—unites these two different, yet in some ways similar, cultures.
The heart of the drama is the mutual, if improbable and unfulfilled, attraction between Lenk’s Dina and the pitch-perfect Tony Shalhoub, who plays Tewfiq, the band’s stiff, uncompromising conductor, who seems to carry on his shoulders the weight of Egypt’s pyramids. Their every gesture, every word seems authentic, their accents flawless. In a superb cast, they both give standout performances, particularly Lenk. Whether she is hacking away at a watermelon or imitating Tewfiq’s conducting, or remembering her love of Egyptian ballads sung by Umm Kulthum, one of the greatest Arabic singers of all time, Lenk is mesmerizing. Her voice is haunting.
This is not one of those Broadway spectaculars filled with twisty plots and dramatic action. It is the actors’ words and the band’s glorious music that fill the stage. David Yazbek’s score and lyrics make anyone who has ever visited the Middle East or heard Arabic music nostalgic. His blend of Broadway balladry and Middle Eastern melodies, music adored by Egyptians and Israelis alike, linger in the mind long after the compact play ends. Scott Pask’s revolving stage captures the sense of limits and sameness with which Bet Hatikva residents contend—“blah, blah, blah,” they say, describing their ersatz town and their lives. “Welcome to Nowhere,” they sing.
The 90-minute play has barely a boring moment. Since I admired the film, I feared that Kolirin’s magnificent screenplay might not survive its translation to the stage, much less as a musical. Premiered last year at the smaller, more intimate Atlantic Theater Company, the play might well have been flattened by its relocation to the Ethel Barrymore’s grander space. Happily, I needn’t have worried. Neither concern was justified.
There is one omission from the film that I wish Itamar Moses had included. In the film, Bet Hatikva is a town populated by Arab Jews. That made their responsiveness to the Egyptian band’s music all the more profound. These second-class Israelis, shunted aside to Israel’s Bet Hatikvas for far too long, have a connection to Arabic music and culture that most of their Ashkenazi counterparts tend not to share.
But this is a quibble. The Band’s Visit is a tiny jewel in a swamp of revivals and long-running grandiosities. And the play, at this point, is fiction. While Israel and Egyptian security services are working more closely together than ever against Hamas, ISIS, and other jihadis, only on stage do ordinary Israelis and Egyptians meet these days to discover their shared humanity.
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Judith Miller, Tablet Magazine’s theater critic, is a former New York Times Cairo bureau chief and investigative reporter. She is also the author of the memoir The Story: A Reporter’s Journey.