Intermission Talk

No “Junk” Left Behind

After “The Band’s Visit”



Some early holiday presents are now on view at the Barrymore Theatre.  If this has been, so far, a season with mixed rewards, grab onto this production,  made up of many creative gifts.

“The Band’s Visit,” with music and lyrics by David Yazbek [“The Full Monty,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”] and book by Itamar Moses [“Outrage,” “The Four of Us”] uses as its basis the documentary-style, original screenplay of the same title by Eran Kolirin, set in a fictional 1996 Israeli town.  The 2007 limited-release film garnered extensive praise.  But the basis for a Broadway musical?  At best, a clear mismatch, and at worst, an idea with no chance of succeeding.

Members of the Alexandria [Egypt] Ceremonial Band, led by their conductor Tewfiq, [a stunning characterization by Tony Shaloub, of TV’s ‘Monk’ fame], discovers that a mix-up in ticketing by the airport bus station ticket seller, has resulted in them being deposited in Bet Hatikva.  It’s a remote, dead-end Israeli village, not their intended destination, the Egyptian town of Petah Tikva  —  something to do with the ‘P’ sound and the ‘B’ sound getting crossed.   No more buses will depart for their true destination until tomorrow morning.  Their backwater ‘home’ for the night has no hotel, and only one halfway decent eatery, run by Dina, an enigmatic young woman who extends a measure of hospitality [Katrina Lenk, who possesses an unlimited range of abilities to project the effects of a near-unlimited variety of circumstances].

Desolation rarely yields happy moods.  And the residents of Bet Hatikva, few in number, have a sorrowful sense of their fate in the two opening songs, “Waiting” and “Welcome to Nowhere.”  Everyone on either side of the cultural divide struggles to sort out how best to cope, with everyone resorting to English as a make-do second language, resulting in short, declarative sentences that can’t plumb below the surface of the situations.  This is not a tale of multiple vignettes drawn from a real-life event, as in “Come From Away,” because it’s fictional.  What it shares with that expansive show is its reliance on the human heart to transcend new obstacles.

In the opening graph above, ‘holiday gifts’ are referred to – gifts, plural.  For a start, the score draws from the rich musical heritage of the locale’s north African – Middle Eastern region, ranging from the darbouka/riq, an Arab tambourine, to the oud/guitar, a short-neck, lute-type, pear-shaped stringed instrument heard throughout the region, from Turkey and Greece to all the Israeli and Arabian territories.  Composer Yazbek folds in flute, clarinet, cello and saxophone, to give the score a lush yet unfussy admixture of harmonies.  The orchestra characters, actual musicians, display real virtuosity in bringing it to life.

Structurally, the visitors split into three small groups, each one accepting an offer of locals to stay the night.  Instead of the predictable one-two-three, one-two-three sequence of events, the masterful director David Cromer [repped earlier this year at the helm of  Max Posner’s off-Broadway drama “The Treasurer”] permits each overnight odyssey to develop at its natural pace, recede and allow room for another one to come to the fore, a tricky decision that keeps us fully engaged.

But – a musical?  Most likely the greatest accomplishment of “The Band’s Visit” stems from its tone, its refusal to jump-start the volume, its avoidance of all things ‘musical theatre.’  Several of its most impactful moments emerge from near silence, as when Dina and Tewfiq allow confidences to be shared on a ‘park’ bench, which in actual fact sits amid rubble and debris.  Despite its bountiful collection of life-examining observations, the book by Moses weaves humor into the proceedings effortlessly, such as watching the ever on-the-prowl trumpeter Haled [a giddily funny performance by Ari’el Stachel], whose standard pick-up line, regardless of the nationality of, or language spoken by his intendeds, always queries “Do you like Chet Baker?”  And a hint of whimsy is evident from the start, when the musicians appear, compliments of designer Sarah Laux, in powder baby blue uniforms.

While Shaloub’s conductor eventually allows his personal tragedies to be shared with Dina, it is her mesmerizing presence that gives “The Band’s Visit” one of its most valuable features.  Dina, [so well served by Lenk, already a veteran of two other unique Broadway offerings ,”Once,” and “Indecent”], makes us ache as she cautiously unpeels away the layers of hurt and regret that keep her there, making us believe we are taking in the aroma of jasmine, in her haunting “Omar Sharif.”  When she and Tewfiq blend rarely-exposed emotions and rarely-met expectations in “Something Different,” they are also giving this stunning, wondrous musical a possible sub-title.

“Junk,” the title of Ayad Akhtar’s latest play has, perhaps not realized by the author, two alternate meanings.  In addition to its intended, the designation for low-value bonds that get traded on or around the world of Wall Street, it’s commonly used to mean trash, or garbage.  But on other ‘streets,’ more uptown and more downscale, ‘junk’ refers to a man’s private parts.  Given the macho-entrenched  world that Akhtar wants us to peek into, that one may be the most apt.

Way back in the shady eighties, know-it-almost-alls on both coasts were becoming binge-traders, seeking out low-priced, high-interest return properties that they could flip, at an obscene profit, leaving the original investors holding some extremely big bags, and not of gold.  Most notorious of these villains was super-trader Michael Milken, whose spider-web tentacles enmeshed the lazy, ‘don’t bother me with the details’ money manipulators, whose sole contribution to the national welfare was their endless dallying in the manufacture not of goods or even services,  but paper ‘propertie.’  One of their ‘best’ characteristics was the projection of security, the sure thing, that comes with believing in someone who seems always to be three or seven steps ahead of the game.  And when the game overcomes their faulty calculations, the house of cards falls in on itself, smothering its inhabitants.

At the epicenter of this labyrinth in “Junk” is the character portrayed by Steven Pasquale, Robert Merkin.  [Merkin/Milken – get it?]   While others have faulted the idea of casting leading man type Pasquale [“Bridges of Madison County”]  as the slick, soulless operator, he instead presents a confidence man with the type of charm needed here.  He possesses the qualities this ‘role’ requires, just like Billy Bigelow in “Carousel.”

As an ambitious reporter out to make her mark covering that world, Teresa Avia Lim falls short of the required overdrive intensity and passion that would power her engine.  In an early monologue, she laments “When did money become the thing – the only thing?”  Arresting as this sounds, echoes of Lorraine Hansberry’s Mama in “Raisin in the Sun” come to mind, when Mama confronts  her son Walter Lee, when he lectures her that money is life.  Mama says “So now it’s life.  Money is life.  Once upon a time, freedom used to be life.  Now it’s money.  I guess the world really do change.”  Her son ricochets with “No, it was always money, Mama.  We just didn’t know about it.”

So while the core component of Akhtar’s multi-part saga relates how the financial system and its willing participants during the last twenty or so years of the last century sought greater and more concentrated power through the accumulation of wealth, that ‘core’ is hardly new.  What the playwright has accomplished is the unbundling of the contemporary ‘components,’ built into relatable characters, who are forced to make choices, as we watch a few of them survive, and the rest get pulled down into the quicksand.

A word about the environment of “Junk” – Lincoln Center’s  A-team of creatives – John Lee Beatty [sets], Ben Stanton [lighting], 59 Productions [projections], and Doug Hughes [director] represent the finest example of creative collaboration.  Each one contributes just the right measure of individual input, without overshadowing the others.  Hughes in particular keeps an unobtrusive hand on the tiller, so that this cast of twenty-some fine actors, most notably Joey Slotnick, Ethan Phillips and Michael Siberry, can navigate the moments, moving the plot lines along in quicksilver action.


Speaking of holiday gifts [see the first sentence, above], “Home for the Holidays – Broadway’s Christmas Concert Celebration” is currently running at the August Wilson Theatre, and is built around 25 Yuletide classics.  And another gift to theatregoers taking in this joyful event is the opportunity of seeing some recently-discovered talent, winners from television’s “American Idol,” “The Voice” and ” America’s Got Talent.”  It only runs until December 30, and for details, visit . . . holiday celebrating can now be shared with those performers who have always been there on every special day, and sometimes with more than eight shows a week.  Charlotte St. Martin, President of the Broadway League, best known as the presenters of the Tony Awards, has announced that, starting with Thanksgiving week, staggered performance days and times mean those on the other side of the footlights will be able to spend time with their loved ones, also.  Friday matinees and alternate curtain times, for instance, will make this a win-win for everyone.  For the complete holiday schedule, go to . . . more great news from the Broadway League!  With the support of the New York City Department of Education [DOE], the League is launching the first full year of Broadway Bridges, giving every NYC student the opportunity to see a Broadway show before graduating.  To learn whether or when your child is eligible, visit

On Book

Speaking of the eighties [see second graph of the “Junk” review], what was going on in theatre during that delirious decade?  “Famous American Plays of the 1980s,” published by Laurel/Dell, compiled by Robert Marx, gathers the best of – – works by Sam Shepard, Jules Feiffer, Wallach Shawn, Stephen Sondheim & James Lapine, and August Wilson.  It’s in a handy paperback edition now, and a genuine good read . . . Ayad Akhtar’s best-known work is “Disgrace,” winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.  And if you missed its electrifying production four seasons back, Back Bay Books, a division of Little, Brown and Company publishes the playscript . . . and returning to the subject of holiday gifts, these three are perfect re-gifting choices, the difference being you give them first to yourself, and then give them as gifts to friends and family.  “Christmas in July – The Life and Art of Preston Sturges,” by Diane Jacobs, chronicles his sweeping, very influential career, and while he is best known for his iconic films, such as “The Palm Beach Story,” “Remember the Night,” “The Lady Eve,” and this book’s title, Sturges also turned out several plays, starting with ‘The Guinea Pig’ and ‘Strictly Dishonorable,’ in 1929.  Published by California University Press, it’s a real eye-grabber . . . another guilty pleasure, “Show & Tell – The New Book of Broadway Anecdotes,” compiled by Ken Bloom, for Oxford University Press, spills out dozens and dozens of great tales about the great guys and dolls of the last hundred or so years, from George [Mr.] Abbott to Florenz Ziegfeld . . . and finally, with a title like “The American Stage – Writings on Theater from Washington Irving to Tony Kushner,” how could you go wrong?  Edited by Laurence Senelick, with a foreword by John Lithgow, for the Library of America, you might just opt to hold on to this one!


TONY VELLELA wrote the Best Play winner “Admissions,” for the New York International Fringe Festival, directed by Austin Pendleton, and published by Playscripts.  He wrote and produced the PBS documentary series about theatre, “Character Studies.”  He has written several other plays and musicals, including “Mister,” for Anthony Rapp, with composer Misha Piatigorsky. His performing arts

feature articles have appeared in dozens of national and international publications, including Parade, Rolling Stone, the Christian Science Monitor, USA Today, Dramatics and others.  His documentary “Test of Time” was an award-winner for Lifetime Television.


CARMEL CAR & LIMOUSINE SERVICE, in business since 1978, has been selected as the official transportation company for Intermission Talk.  Its wide variety of services, including special theatre packages, and reservations, are available at, the Carmel App, or at 212 – 666 – 6666.


Books recommended or referenced in Intermission Talk are available at, or through Manhattan’s Tony Award-winning Drama Bookshop, 250 west 40th street, NYC 10018, or 212 – 944 – 0595, or at













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