A crowd of 3,000 people waited to get into the new Apple Store on W. 14th St. last Friday.
By Lee Ann Westover
It’s always a dangerous prospect to buy tickets to a musical about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict less for the risk of bodily injury than for the likelihood that the show will be ineffective. If it’s overly sentimental, the story can crush an audience with its weight. Make it too snarky, and cool-kid distance can detract from the seriousness of the subject. Happily, playwright Oren Safdie strikes a delicate balance between the two in “West Bank, UK,” bringing us both a refreshingly light-hearted comedy about two personalities from opposite sides of the border, and a serious exploration of the issues that prevent a resolution to the real-life struggle.
Assaf (Jeremy Cohen) is a cocky, gorgeous Israeli arms dealer who has just returned to his rent-controlled London apartment from a sojourn in Germany with a woman who eventually broke his heart. Aziz (Mike Mosallam) is a Palestinian drug dealer who has taken over the lease on that same apartment. In contrast to Assaf’s preening physical confidence, Aziz is chubby and sexually insecure. His greatest dream is to find a woman to pet and love. As he sings in the show’s opening number, “Please somebody break my heart!”
Through a plot twist that requires a little suspension of reality, the two are forced to share the flat until the landlord a twentysomething cokehead from New York City can find a copy of the lease and decide who is in the right. That ends up being the farthest task from her mind, as she bounces between the men. Aziz is her dealer, but she aggressively tries to bed the sexy, heartbroken Assaf.
From there, the plot escalates into a push and pull between the two men neither of whom consider themselves to be a “political person.” At first the battle happens between just the pair, but eventually their living room becomes the setting of a mini Israeli-Palestinian conflict, complete with negotiations for the bathroom territory from behind a hastily constructed wall. Throughout the action, Assaf and Aziz are joined by a circus troupe of simpler, more stereotypical characters to move the plot along. At times they act as a Greek chorus, at others one appears as a rich relative or potential love interest.
Ronnie Cohen created enchanting, exciting music and lyrics that are as unconventional and interesting as the plot. The music is Middle-Eastern in flavor, and passionately played by an onstage band under the direction of Scott Baldyga. From the balcony, a trio of violin, keyboard and bass is joined by a Fiddler-on-the-Roof-ish Oud player, who have ample opportunities to show off their skills during scene changes.
Like most new productions, the show isn’t perfect. Cohen’s smart and candid lyrics can skew a little too far into overtly profane territory from time to time, and the plot unravels slightly in the show’s latter half, as events become a bit cartoonish.
Luckily, the show is full of great songs that leave the audience laughing out of shock or surprise, and the few problems in the production seem negligible, thanks to the talented cast. Mosallam makes the dirtiest lyrics “He’s squeezing her buttocks, his tongue’s down her throat” seem sweet with longing. Cohen plays Assaf with a convincing swagger, and has a gorgeous voice as well. When he is called upon to hammer out the only really serious, emotive ballad, he carries it off with such aplomb that I sprouted goosebumps when I thought I would just groan.
Michelle Solomon and Anthony Patellis play no fewer than four characters each, and perhaps have the most difficult shoes to fill. Patellis is a chameleon in his different guises, and sings with a pleasant raspiness (which may require a microphone in future performances). Solomon has a searing soprano and a excellent comedic timing. The two also scored a couple of the most entertaining songs in the show: “72 Virgins” (set to a disco beat), and a Latin party number about violence as a ratings booster. (“Look what I’ve found, a head in a tree. Maybe I’ll make anchor, if I show sympathy.”)
“West Bank, UK” is running only until December 16th. What a pity that this spirited cast won’t have more time to continue to develop such rich material. Even so, this show will elicit hundreds of belly laughs in its short run. The graceful conclusion, which I won’t spoil, will leave audiences with much to ponder, yet no closer to a solution than the actual parties at war.