Two new musicals made me cry this past week, for all the best reasons. They didn’t jerk tears from me with the cheap tricks that lesser musicals employ. And they didn’t make me weep, as really lamebrained productions can, at their shameless waste of money and talent. Quite the contrary: These two shows are intelligent, imaginative, and humane. They provoke tears by acknowledging that ours is a terrifying world, and they both set out to show people struggling to be decent to each other despite that terror. I cried because tears are built into our reality. “Sunt lacrimae rerum,” as the hero of Virgil’s Aeneid says — “tears are in things.” That’s human nature, that’s the world, and — since the next four years will probably bring many more terrors — we always need theater to remind us of the fact.
The newer of the two shows is The Band’s Visit, at the Atlantic Theater, an adaptation by playwright Itamar Moses and lyricist-composer David Yazbek of the 2007 Israeli film. Its absurdly simple premise was probably inspired by a simple mishearing: An Egyptian police band is invited to Israel to play at the opening of a new Arab cultural center in the big industrial city of Petah Tikva. But they end up, thanks to pronunciation differences between Arabic and Hebrew, in a tiny, barren (and imaginary) desert town called Bet Hatikva. There’s only one bus a day, so they’re stuck until the next morning, and they and the locals have to try, or at least pretend, to be nice to one another.
That’s the whole story. But when explored in detail, a story like this one can contain all of civilization, and The Band’s Visit pretty nearly does. The Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, in its starchy white uniforms, is fully conscious of being on a diplomatic mission; the locals are equally conscious of having strangers in their midst and, while wildly curious about them, have no desire to cause some sort of international incident.
The gradual thaw between the two groups is slow, tentative, marked by embarrassed pauses and discomfiting disruptions. No gigantic transformation occurs: Nobody becomes a hero, the town and the band do not weld in everlasting amity. No lives are transfigured, though one or two are enhanced a bit. Nothing melodramatic occurs: No hate is stirred up, nobody gets killed, no bombs go off. It’s just people, discovering that they can deal with each other as people.
But that’s enough to set talented artists’ imaginations working. Steered by David Cromer’s magisterially subtle direction, Moses and Yazbek layer their chronicle in tiny increments, seemingly disconnected, that build till we feel that we, too, have gotten to know these people. The writers don’t belabor the incidents, and they almost never overexplain.
What little explaining does happen comes in song, when the locals feel moved to express their yearnings or frustrations. (Since the band members are played mainly by actor-musicians, they do little singing.) Yazbek’s unconventionally shaped songs rise to a peak and then often fade out, as do Moses’s scenes, the events drifting into one another. Much of the action takes place at night, and Tyler Micoleau’s chiaroscuro lighting often catches one character’s head in the glow of an onstage lamp while another figure lurks, half-seen, in shadow.
Music, appropriately, is also the show’s medium of choice for ice-breaking and bridge-building. American songbook items like Gershwin’s “Summertime” and Chet Baker’s version of “My Funny Valentine” play key roles. The local café owner (a powerhouse performance by Katrina Lenk) tries to cozy up to the straitlaced bandleader (Tony Shalhoub) by confessing her fondness for Umm Kulthum, the Egyptian Piaf. The band’s clarinetist (Alok Tewari) quiets a crying infant with the prelude to the concerto he’s never finished composing. “Music and love,” sings an Israeli widower (Andrew Polk) who once played violin with a dance band, “who can tell them apart?” By the end, when we finally see and hear the Ceremonial Police Orchestra playing at full strength, it’s hard not to agree with him: The love that’s gone into every aspect of the show is tunefully apparent.
Love is the subject, too, of Dear Evan Hansen, which has moved to Broadway’s Music Box Theatre without losing any of the emotional power or delicacy packed into it at the more intimate Second Stage. If anything, Michael Greif’s production has deepened its strongly rooted acting, while minor tweaks have tightened and tautened both Steven Levenson’s script and the score, by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. The one cast change, Michael Park (who had created the role at D.C.’s Arena Stage) replacing John Dossett as the father of Evan’s troubled nemesis, Connor, makes for a visual improvement: Park’s fullback-like solidity gives the role an extra edge of menace, perfect for unnerving an already troubled teen.
And troubled, indeed, is what Evan Hansen (Ben Platt) and his coevals are: alternately medicated, therapized, fussed over, and galvanized into overachieving; or ignored and left to fixate on their personal inadequacies. Panicked by anxiety over peers and parents alike, they make up a gallery of teenage suffering: unhinged Connor (Mike Faist); his neglected sister Zoe (Laura Dreyfuss); the secretly lonely class cynic Jared (Will Roland); and needy, isolated Alana (Kristolyn Lloyd). Greif has brought all these performances to full strength on the big stage, making it clear that Evan’s private agony is part of a larger pattern. The adults — Park and Jennifer Laura Thompson as Connor’s parents, Rachel Bay Jones as Evan’s struggling divorced mom — have their own outside-world battles to fight. Their misguided attentions, or lack thereof, leave the kids further confused. It’s certainly a world to cry over.
So when Evan, prodded by his anxieties on the one hand and Connor’s parents’ distress on the other, tells the well-meaning lie that starts the action spinning, we see how naturally the rest arises. And as the story burgeons, we see another component the authors have taken pains to prepare: Evan is gifted, and the piece is, among other things, about the emergence of a fiction writer in a media-centric world where fiction has too often been frighteningly mistaken for fact.
The parable, on its newly enlarged scale, continues to ring true, and happily, so does Platt’s performance, which provokes empathic tears with the sparsest, most disciplined means. He communicates the role infallibly — ironic, given that its core is the character’s anxiety over his constant miscommunication. But because Platt makes us understand perfectly, we can weep — and laugh — over Evan’s failure to be understood.
The Band’s Visit
At the Linda Gross Theater
336 West 20th Street
Through January 1
Dear Evan Hansen
At the Music Box Theatre
239 West 45th Street