Yvonne Korshak reviews Off-Broadway, Broadway, Film and Art

Tag: Itamar Moses

Review | The Band’s Visit | Music & Lyrics by David Yazbek | Book by Itamar Moses | Atlantic Theater Company

…. cultural ambassadors …

A travel weary Egyptian ceremonial police band on their way to play a concert in the Israeli city of Petah Tikva get off the bus by mistake at the small town of Bet Hatikva (you can see how that mistake can be made). There won’t be another bus until morning.  Thank heavens for the mistake – or we wouldn’t have this wonderful musical!

The inhabitants of this relative cultural backwater are edgy and cautious about their unexpected visitors but ultimately do what decent humans do:  they take them in for the night.  And that’s what this show is about:  being human, in the better senses of the word.

Language and cultural barriers are bridged in the brief time the Egyptians are marooned in Bet Hatikva.  With plenty of hesitation and resistance on both sides, conversation begins to flow.  Recognition, understanding, true wit, and music flower.

And love.  The beautiful central love story involves Dina owner of the local café, a dusty oasis in the desert, and Tewfiq, the Conductor of the Egyptian Band.  Dina’s hospitality is grudging on the surface but never in doubt, and that’s the kind of woman she is:  gritty and vulnerable.  How fascinating to watch the gorgeous Katrina Lenk in the role of in the role of Dina allure Tewfiq, played with perfect uptight military correctness by Tony Shalhoub.

But like these, all the characters in The Band’s Visit are humanly complex – even the small parts convey fully rounded personalities.  The acting, singing, dancing, and instrumental playing are in all ways perfect, intelligent and exciting.

The music – and there are fourteen musical numbers — has a thrilling, seductive near-eastern tonality and the lyrics are full of originality and wit.  There’s a lot to laugh at and much that is bitter-sweet in the songs and in the unrolling of the characters’ stories.  This is a “you couldn’t want more” kind of show.  But dominating the whole is the nuanced acting, full-throated singing and smart, wise beauty of Katrina Lenk’s Dina.

A particularly enchanting interlude finds Dina and Tewfiq on a park bench:  Tewfiq, encouraged by Dina, sings a profound and introspective song in Arabic as Dina, in a surreal touch, dances around him,  her arms moving with independent grace, as she sings the questions in her mind, wondering what’ s behind the stern, sad mask of the man who so draws her to him.

The set is as perfect as everything else, conjuring up a small town bus station, Dina’s café with its faded sign, a roller skating rink with colored lights (a key aspect of Bet Hatikva night life), and that miraculous park bench — with movement between scenes achieved with deceptive simplicity.  A stage floor with a rolling panel has never been set to better use.

The show is set a decade or so ago, when Egyptian-Israeli cultural exchanges were in play, and the story is based on an incident that really happened.  And so nostalgia meets with what-if in as bittersweet a romance as that between Dina and Tewfiq.  The Band’s finale persuades that music – perhaps even more than love – is the universal language.

The Band’s Visit is based on a screen play by Eran Kolirin, and is directed by David Cromer.  It plays at Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater in Manhattan’s Chelsea district in an extended run through January 8, 2017.  For more information and tickets, click here.

Review | Completeness by Itamar Moses | Directed by Pam MacKinnon | Playwrights Horizons

Itamar Moses catches today’s lingo like butterflies.  Completeness is about young people, in the Computer Science and Biology Departments of a university, talking about love, molecular biology and computer science, while going through a variety of partners.  It’s good to have a play about people who are intelligent and care about their work.

Elliot is a Computer Science Assistant Professor (or thereabouts) who — beyond his sleepy-eyed cool — is dedicated to solving THE problem in Computer Science, “The Salesman’s Problem” — and if you see the play, he will tell you all about its complexities.  He’s so articulate you feel he knows everything, except how to resolve the conflict between his anxiety about commitment (described in a hilariously hyperbolic monolog that’s a high point of the play) and a yearning to settle in with “the one” or “love” or whatever.

At the start, he’s in the process of ushering Lauren out of his bedroom and, in little time, ushering Molly in:  she’s a grad student in molecular biology, and this seems promising because she’s as passionate about identifying a difficult-to-isolate protein as he is about “The Salesman’s Problem.”   She’s a bit of a clickety-clackety run-on speaker — but that’s her enthusiasm, and anyhow he finds her adorable.  Work is one level of existence, love’s another – and they both have had an eye on each other which adds up to it doesn’t take long to get naked and into bed.

Elliot sets about developing an algorithm to aid Molly’s scientific project.  I found that really great:  not only are they each intellectually engaged with their own work, they can work together!  The playwright tries taking it to a more generalized level:  that since he’s a Computer Scientist and she’s a Molecular Biologist, they complement each other not only as individuals but also in some broad sense of a union of life and mathematical abstraction. But that last comes across more like a sound bite;  it makes the play easy to talk about, but isn’t fully realized.

Molly ditches her older Advisor/Professor in favor of Elliot (you can be sure the professor isn’t alone for long), and then, when Elliot and Molly are driven apart by their individual commitment angst, various partnerings arise — fast.  Inner anguish and jealousy are expressed but never trouble the play’s bright, witty, surface.  Whatever the characters are going through, we’re having a good time.

The characters themselves question why their generation is so fast about getting to sex, and so distant from commitment.  There’s a resonant truth in the line about partnering, “We don’t know what we’re supposed to do,” an issue for this generation I’ve read about in the news.  Promiscuity in this play doesn’t seem to be making anybody happy but it makes for a lot of amusing lines and situations which keep the audience happy.

In spite of all the lengths they go to explain themselves, though, and the fine acting, the characters seem types, though amusingly recognizable types.  Why does this pair bond or not bond?  We don’t sense it deeply, it could go either way.  And it doesn’t seem to matter all that much.

The success of Completeness owes a lot to the excellent cast and brisk direction.  Karl Miller plays the oh so sharp Elliot with intelligence and perfect timing, and makes the part his own.  Whether about love or molecules, Aubrey Dollar spins Molly’s recitatives almost as fast as Figaro in the Barbara of Seville.  Meredith Forlenza shows range as three avatars of contemporary young women including Lauren, the one with residual romantic expectations.  Brian Avers plays with great appeal both the older professor who’s stuck on bench science and resists computer modeling, and the graduate student who sees through him.  They are all fun to watch.

Completeness is comic fluff – not a “must” but it’s enjoyable.

Completeness plays at Playwrights Horizons on Wests 42nd Street in Manhattan through September 25th.

Review | The Great Recession | Plays by Thomas Bradshaw, Sheila Callaghan, Erin Courtney, Will Eno, Itamar Moses and Adam Rapp | Flea Theater

The Flea is presenting six plays by six authors, each with some reference to the recession.  The actors are drawn from The Flea’s “Bats,” the young, capable and energetic actors of their resident company — you find yourself hoping for a good show at least as much for them as for yourself, but it doesn’t happen.  For most of the plays, the link to the recession is so synthetic it doesn’t matter.  The plays don’t matter much either, which is too bad for what must have seemed like a good idea.

Classic Kitchen Timer by Adam Rapp is based around a kill or be killed bargain.  A character out of work is offered $25,000 to murder a baby or herself be murdered.  If someone “in the audience” prevents her from killing the baby in a set time, she’ll killed by whoever interferes, which occurs, leading to the bargain being reset for him — kill the baby and make a lot of money or be killed, and so on …   The situation is so bizarre that it doesn’t illuminate the lives of those out of work because of the recession (or for any other reason).

Fucked shows Itamar Moses’ keen ear for the dialog of contemporary relationships as in his enjoyable Love Stories at The Flea, reviewed here February 2009.  There are similar amusing moments in this one, but nothing really happens:  the girl leaves but that’s a foregone conclusion, and it’s also obvious from the start that the guy doesn’t care.  A phone conversation reveals that the guy’s dad has lost money in commodities but that doesn’t figure in the play and so seems squeezed in to fit the recession theme.

In New York Living, Thomas Bradshaw returns to his loveless couples breaking up and recoupling — what difference does it make who as long as there’s a live body and some sex?  In his recently produced The Bereavedreviewed in September, this theme had a political purpose — it was the engine that drove a revolutionary parable.  Here, the “issues” between the couples are childishly prurient with much ado about erections, and the mechanical breakups and recouplings have no purpose at all, like the plot of Cosi Fan Tutte without the music.  Needing a place to live figures but — boom or bust — that’s always true for young actors in New York City.

Severed by Erin Courtney is a conversation between two people on a bench in which the young man, in a fine suit, is out of work but optimistic, and the young woman, who seems briefly attracted to him, leaves for her job with preschoolers wearing as she does for work a huge over-the-head bulbous eunuch’s mask.

In Recess by Sheila Callaghan, insane people mill around an open area as in a classic Bedlam.  One lies dead and another’s dead by the end from compulsive exercise and anorexia, while a couple plays footsies, men fight, and the group eats a meager meal while imagining better fare.  So many people appear nude in Recess that by the end it’s totally clear that there’s a difference between male and female anatomies but then that’s not news.  Recess, the program says, takes place in an “apocalyptic near future when the bottom has indeed fallen out” but you wouldn’t know if you hadn’t read it.

Unum by Will Eno, about the mighty and not-so-mighty dollar, develops slowly and stiffly and with empty pauses between episodes, until finally it reaches a truly affecting passage when a mother with Alzheimer’s is moved to a care facility because of the squeeze on living space.

Two performances stand out among many good ones.  In Classic Kitchen Timer, Nick Maccarone is wry and balletic as a Host, really a Master of Ceremonies in the style of Joel Grey in Cabaret  (though the role seems pointless in connection with the play).  Jessica Pohly in Fucked has a terrific comic delivery while conveying genuine feeling, like Carol Burnett.

The Great Recession plays at The Flea Theater in NYC’s Tribeca through December 30.

Fucked - Flea Theater

Dorien Makhloghi and Jessica Pohly in Fucked by Itamar Moses
Photo: Courtesy of The Flea Theater

Review | Love/Stories (or But You Will Get Used To It) by Itamar Moses | Directed by Michelle Tattenbaum | Downstairs at The Flea

Love/Stories is a delightful romp through how we speak with one another when we are getting into and out of love.  There are five short plays that move into one another with a pleasant fluidity, as the actors, members of the Bats, the Flea’s young resident company mix and match into couples.  The author has a fine ear for contemporary language and amusingly recognizable contemporary types who nonetheless come across as true individuals.

My favorite was part monologue in which a young actress, doing a favor for a playwright, spins out a problematic history for a successfully auditioning actor to spoil his chances, inventing negatives with more and more enthusiasm and detail as she warms into it.  Others specially loved the talk-back with an audience in which an interpreter with a marvelous Slavic accent conveys the pain (But You Will Get Used To It) of a Russian avant-garde theater director.

The last of the five should have been left out:  it’s a self-indulgent variation on the topic of “what should I write about” as the subject for a narrative.  But, you can look back past it to an evening filled with smiles and several good laughs.

Love/Stories plays Downstairs at the Flea Theater in Tribeca — extended run through April 25 (that’s the second extension for this play that’s really found its own popularity!).

Upstairs on the main stage is Kaspar Hauser: A Foundling’s Opera, a world premier by Liz Swados and Erin Courtney, through March 30,  – find my review here.

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