Welcome to Bet Hatikva: “The Band’s Visit”

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The Band's Visit
Ari’el Stachel, David Garo Yellin, George Abud, Tony Shaloub, Harvey Valdes, Sam Sadigursky and Alok Tewari in The Band's Visit. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.

The thing about spells is that people don’t usually fall under them instantly. Metaphorically speaking, before the prospectively hypnotized can become spellbound, they must focus on the swinging watch. This may well be what audience members find true about The Band’s Visit, running Off-Broadway at the Atlantic Theater Company, where book writer Itamar Moses, songwriter David Yazbek, director David Cromer and choreographer Patrick McCullum are sleight-of-hand magicians in adapting Eran Kolirin’s 2007 screenplay for the stage.

When the audience enters, all that’s seen on Scott Pask’s set are instrument cases. Needless to say, they belong to the band members of the musical’s title. These musicians enter as Tyler Micoleau’s lights rise to reveal Pask’s shorthand version of a remote Israeli kibbutz, Bet Hatikva. An announcement: In 1996, an Egyptian band was invited to play in Bet Hatikva. What’s soon to transpire is quite important.

It’s a message of cross-border relationships that couldn’t be more politically pertinent this minute, both for its direct reference to Egypt-Israel understanding, which is perhaps more acknowledged today than it was 40 years ago, and for its implied reference to decades-long Palestinian-Israeli tensions.

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What casts a spell are the involvements of the six-piece band under Conductor Tewfiq (Tony Shalhoub) once the group arrives in the sleepy village, uncertain of their mission. Indeed, Bet Hatikva is so sleepy, and the band so uncertain, that The Band’s Visit initially gives an impression of being both. Just about the only place to which sleepiness doesn’t extend is to the local rollerskating rink.

The band members — though mostly Tewfiq — tentatively interact with the townsfolk, and the more that time slowly passes (as it is wont to do in such villages as Bet Hatikva), the more their interactions take on a quietly emotional weight.

For example Tewfiq and an unhappy local café owner, Dina (Katrina Lenk), are drawn to each other. Despite more and more time being spent together, they can’t act on their attraction. Another touching occurrence involves when Simon (clarinetist Alok Tewari), invited to a home where the hostess isn’t necessarily welcoming, is forced to change her tune: When Simon hears the child of the hosting couple crying in a nearby crib, he begins a clarinet serenade.

Every once in a while, humor pops into the proceedings. Trumpeter Haled (Ari’el Stachel) makes a point of asking various inhabitants if they’re familiar with trumpet player Chet Baker and his “My Funny Valentine” vocal. No one seems to be, but I am — I recommend any Baker recording of the standard. Haled, at one point, sings a bit of it himself.

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Director Cromer, who made such a success of the last NYC revival of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, sees this quite-other town as the center of a mood piece. He vivifies and deepens the mood so gradually that patrons may not realize how deftly they’re drawn into the play by the time 90 minutes are up. One of Cromer’s most appealing facets is how he stations the instrumentalists — violinist George Abud, guitarist and oudist Harvey Valdes, cellist David Garo Yellin, clarinetist and flutist Sam Sadigursky, and Tewari and Stachel — in Bet Hatikva’s shadows, where they fill the air like so many street musicians.

They do this, of course, while playing Yazbek’s score, which itself is a variegated mood piece. Having written more traditional Broadway scores such as The Full MontyDirty Rotten Scoundrels and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Yazbek operates in an entirely new mode. He even calls one of his rambling, rhyme-avoiding songs “Something Different,” thereby signaling that he intends to conjure up something dustily exotic from his music.

His strategy works: If Cromer, along with playwright Moses, aim to cast a spell, Yazbek’s music serves as its underscoring. The on-stage musicians are enhanced by the off-stage musicians, and all are in the thrall of Jamshied Sharifi’s lush and lulling orchestrations. What an enticing world-music-like original cast CD this one is going to be.

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The cast members are among the spellbinders as well. Shalhoub’s not-philandering conductor speaks with a thick Egyptian accent about which I can’t comment definitively, but Mouna R’miki served as the language and dialect coach. Yet no matter what or whom Shalhoub plays, he always brings a masculine charm and hint of vulnerability to his portrayals, as is the case here. Layers and resonance are terms to apply to the rest of the cast — Lenk, chief among them. but including John Cariani, Bill Army, Daniel David Stewart, Sharone Sayegh, Kristen Sieh, Rachel Prather, Andrew Polk and Erik Liberman.

The visiting band is just about to give their long-awaited concert as The Band’s Visit ends. Fortunately, Cromer does have a final trick up his prestidigitator’s sleeve.

The highest compliment that can be given to The Band’s Visit is that at a historical point when hope is a seemingly diminishing commodity, here we have a ray of it. It implies that music might be the vehicle by which we can realize hope. If that were true, wouldn’t that be something?