It is always a risk to get show tickets in January, but we were very intrigued by the premise of this play (we had not seen the movie): a band of Egyptian musicians mistakenly shows up in a tiny backwater Israeli desert town. I was longing for catharsis, and the promise of off-Broadway, Tony Shaloub, and David Cromer made me think I would find it. Alas, I was not taken outside of myself (that’s a lot to ask), but The Band’s Visit made humane and intelligent points in a manner both smart and artistic, so I am glad we braved the snowstorm and headed into the city for an adventure.
A bit of research reveals that the movie and the show are actually quite similar; the story told is very personal, very individual. In fact, the show opens with these projected words: “Once, not long ago, a group of musicians came to Israel from Egypt. You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t very important.” There is no large message of a clash of cultures, or even a sense of a looming larger culture capriciously pervading and perverting the lives and hopes of ordinary people—a favorite theme of mine—as in Andy Garcia’s rich and poignant The Lost City. Here, we have eight strangers who have descended on a place of desolation and lives lived in quiet desperation. And they meet and they interact and they share and they connect and they part. And we learn that the lives on both sides have been in quiet desperation, and will likely continue that way. But there was a moment and there was a connection, and that’s what this musical celebrates.
The main medium for the connection is music, which both transcends and underpins all human lives. Music is the universal language. (Composer and lyricist David Yazbek promotes the preeminence of music through numerous synesthetic allusions throughout the songs, which taste, and see, and touch.) But while music can draw the characters together, it is not sufficient to enable them to share thoughts, or ideas, or experiences. To communicate with each other, the musicians and the Israelis must speak English—which is not their native language, and their sometimes awkward, inelegant, or simplistic phrasings point up the inadequacy of language as well as the necessity to keep trying to reach across divides with words.
Which brings me to what I found to be the loveliest exchange in the play. A middle-aged man is leaving his daughter’s house, where one of the musicians, also a middle-aged man, is staying the night. Earlier, the men sang Gershwin’s “Summertime” together. Now, as they part, the Israeli says “Sholem Aleichem” by way of farewell, and the Egyptian responds with an Arabic phrase (I didn’t quite catch it, but I think and hope it was “as-salaam alaykum”). And that got me. They didn’t speak English, because that was foreign to them; they were saying a fond farewell, and so they reached for their native languages, even though those languages were not understandable to each other. They were hoping that the gist of what they wanted to convey, the spirit, would pass through the language barrier. And it did. Not in any big sentimental way, but just two comrades passing in the night, temporarily alleviating the ills and ails.
No lives were perhaps changed, no permanent friendships or liaisons established. Eight strangers arrived, were taken in, and left. And the show ends. But the director then wisely gave us a short, joyful, and rousing concert featuring the talented cast of musician/actors: mirroring the play—another shared moment of transient connection among human beings brought together just this once.