There’s a saying: There are only two kinds of stories — someone goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town. (Who said it? Unclear.) If that’s true—at least it’s intriguing!—it seems to me that novels are particularly well suited to the first type of narrative, while the latter often makes brilliant plays. On the one hand, The Hobbit. On the other, The Music Man. No wonder then that The Band’s Visit, now playing at the Barrymore after a triumphant off-Broadway run at Atlantic Theater Company last season, makes such a beautiful piece of theater. It’s a rare beast: a musical with zero razzle-dazzle, adapted from a delicate indie film (Israeli director and screenwriter Eran Kolirin’s 2007 feature of the same name), where none of the performers dance with Fosse flair or sing with the traditional glossy Broadway belt, where intimate character study replaces high drama and silences are as important as language. Director David Cromer, book writer Itamar Moses, and composer/lyricist David Yazbek are clearly unified in their pursuit of the specific and the humane over the grandiose. Together they’ve created a play of deep integrity — funny, generous, sweet without sentimentality, poignant without melodrama, and emotionally expansive even as it insists upon its own smallness.
“Once not long ago,” reads a projected title at the start of the show, “a group of musicians came to Israel from Egypt. You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t very important.” The strangers who come to town are the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, whom we first encounter standing hesitantly at attention in an Israeli bus station, painfully obvious in their powder blue uniforms (the thoughtful costumes, with their delightful little 1990s flourishes, are by Sarah Laux). The town is Bet Hatikva — “With a ‘B’.” The band, it turns out, was searching for Petah Tikva (“With a ‘P’”), a bustling metropolis with “lots of fun, lots of art, lots of culture” where they’ve been invited to play a concert at the Arab Cultural Center. But when you don’t speak Hebrew, the two town names sound practically identical (and Arabic has no ‘P’ sound), and so the Egyptians have ended up on the wrong bus — only to arrive in a city whose residents describe it with bone-dry hilarity in the song “Welcome to Nowhere”:
Stick a pin in a map of the desert
Build a road to the middle of the desert
Pour cement on the spot in the desert
That’s Bet Hatikva.
Of course in a “basically bleak and beige and blah blah blah” town like this, there’s not another bus till morning. Our strangers are stranded — their stuckness brilliantly underscored by Scott Pask’s elegantly layered, sandy-hued set. Though the theater’s walls are painted to evoke swirling expanses of desert sky, the back wall has a drab little window and satellite dish installed in it. The effect is almost Truman Show-esque: The sky is quite literally the limit. The world has walls. The actual desert might stretch off infinitely in all directions, but the residents of Bet Hatikva live their lives inside a box.
Inside this box, The Band’s Visit unfolds over the course of a single night, shifting gently amongst encounters silly and sad and bittersweet, as the Arab musicians and their provincial Israeli hosts move tentatively towards each other, from breaking bread to sharing secrets, suffering, and—most profound of all—music.
David Yazbek’s exquisite, exuberant score, rich with Arabic classical influences, is brought to life not only by a small and mighty offstage orchestra, but on stage by the eponymous band: three stellar actor-musicians and four more world-class instrumentalists, playing everything from oud and darbouka to cello, clarinet, and violin. In a profession that loves to talk about risk but seldom truly takes one, The Band’s Visit is quietly modeling real theatrical and musical courage. Its sound—dense and atmospheric and drawn from a non-Western musical idiom—is utterly distinctive on Broadway. It features numbers that are entirely instrumental, not to mention sequences of nightly improvisation by the superb musicians. There is no intermission, which means no big first act finale. The closest thing in the show to an 11 o’clock number is the heart-wrenching “Answer Me,” a song begun with a deep, steady sense of ache by Adam Kantor in a role known only as “Telephone Guy.” (In The Band’s Visit, even the people without names feel whole, human.)
Telephone Guy spends his nights staring into the flickering sodium light of Bet Hatikva’s one public payphone, waiting for a call from his girlfriend. “Very soon. Very soon. That’s the sound of longing,” he sings, and gradually his song spreads throughout the full ensemble. But even as their voices rise together, the actors remain solitary, isolated in little patches of light, staring out into the darkness. Their song is an anthem to loneliness, to the hunger for connection and the pain of hope. The single thundering, shimmering moment in which we hear every voice in The Band’s Visit ring out at full forte together for the first time is a brief one — an echo almost before we have a chance to exhale.
The Band’s Visit itself is a kind of astonishing, unreleased inhalation. Its characters are so full—of desires, fears, uncertainties, suffering—and Cromer allows each one sparkling moments of vulnerability and revelation without the sappy satisfaction of complete catharsis. He’s deftly striking an almost Chekhovian tone here: at once clinically observant and deeply humane. He—and we—can laugh at these characters (as for instance in “Papi Hears the Ocean,” a tragicomic masterpiece of teenage anxiety delivered with befuddled, hilarious angst by the excellent Etai Benson as Papi), but that laughter never feels unkind.
Fullest of all the yearning souls in Bet Hatikva is Dina, the café owner whose wry, decisive word seems to pass for law in these parts (when she invites the strangers to stay, they’re staying). As Dina, Katrina Lenk gives a gorgeous performance, her whole body writhing with unanswered hungers and her voice as rich and textured as sea salt in dark chocolate. As she sings in the show’s most ravishing number, “Omar Sharif,” an ode to glamorous foreign film stars who opened up her childhood to the dream of romance:
Every day you stare to the west, to the south,
You can see for miles but things never change,
Then honey in your ears, spice in your mouth —
Nothing’s as surprising as the taste of something strange.
Dina longs for something to happen — something that frees the wild longings that make her spine twist and her arms dance even when all she’s doing is sitting on a park bench. She senses real connection in the band’s reserved conductor Tewfiq—the wonderful Tony Shalhoub, disappearing into a performance as heartbreaking in its secret shadows as it is amusing in its straight-laced foibles—but she’ll end up sleeping with the handsome trumpet-player Haled (the sensitive, self-aware Ari’el Stachel, whose deliciously humorous attempts at flirtation contain their own bitter pill: he’s got an arranged marriage waiting for him back in Egypt). The familiarity of it all both stings and sooths: How many of us have felt longing pushing at the very insides of our skin? How many of us have reached out in our loneliness and taken the thing that’s there, even if only for a moment, an hour, a night?
Americans are obsessed with happiness. We think we deserve it, that we’re owed it. But travel east and that self-important philosophy begins to dissipate. The Band’s Visit is in many ways a play about unhappiness — but that doesn’t mean it’s about despair. Far from it. In fact, in both form and content, the show gave me more hope for what Broadway might welcome, might foster, might become than any musical in a long time. It’s a deceptively radical jasmine wind blowing through a stuffy room, bringing with it the possibility of change.
The Band’s Visit is at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.