“Once not long ago a group of musicians came to Israel from Egypt,” read the supertitles. “You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t very important.” Unimportance is key to The Band’s Visit, a charming new musical based on the 2007 film of the same name.
When the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra arrive in Israel to perform at the opening of an Arab cultural center, they take the bus to Betah Tikvah. The problem is, they’re supposed to be in Petah Tikvah. With a P. And unlike the city with an astonishingly similar name, Betah Tikvah is a slab of concrete in the desert, notable for its apartments, its café, and the walk between the two.
Still, the night they are forced to spend there proves momentous for both the orchestra and the town’s residents. The conductor, Tewfiq (Tony Shalhoub), passes an awkward but illuminating evening with the café proprietress, Dina (Katrina Lenk). Both are forced to confront their loneliness, he after the death of his wife, she after the departure of her husband. Meanwhile, the overconfident Haled (Ari’el Stachel) seizes this opportunity to flirt with every woman he meets, aware that an arranged marriage awaits him at home; he also makes time to school the skittish virgin Papi (Daniel David Stewart) in the means of seduction.
Ms. Lenk is terrific as Dina. With her weight always on her right foot, her chest slightly puffed out, she simultaneously projects both hostility and vulnerability. Mr. Shalhoub is the perfect foil for her glaring defensiveness. Unnecessarily formal, slow to speak, and frequent to stammer, he shares with her a gorgeous scene in which the pair discover they have a shared affection for the melodramas of Omar Sharif. This prompts a solo number from Dina filled with phrases like “jasmine-scented wind,” to which he replies, carefully, mournfully, “Not everybody feels like you … People care about other things. Money, efficiency, worth.”
The remainder of the cast is excellent, too. I particularly enjoyed Alok Tewari, who plays the clarinetist and would-be composer Simon. With a heavy, melancholy face, he tells his hosts that he never finished his concerto: “I begin it at the Academy? But then my wife get pregnant and life and time…” he trails off.
Though The Band’s Visit is ultimately hopeful, there is nonetheless a gentle cynicism to the proceedings. Life is disappointing, and these people have been let down over and over again. Still, they seem to have heeded E.M. Forster’s warning at the beginning of Howards End: “Only connect…” If nothing else, the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra and the population of Betah Tikvah demonstrate the possibility of connection, of overcoming the chasm that separates any two individuals.
The Band’s Visit runs through January 8th at the Linda Gross Theater. 336 W. 20th Street New York, NY. 1 hour 40 minutes. No intermission.