West Bank, UK
nytheatre.com review by Joe Beaudin
November 30, 2007
I have to admit: when I was watching the first 15 minutes of West Bank, UK, I felt a little uneasy because I thought what was going to unfold throughout the 75-minute runtime of the show was another dramatic production about conflict in the Middle East that was going to make me feel guilty for not knowing... more about the conflict in the Middle East. Fortunately, my intuition was wrong, and the show's music, lyrics, and actors wooed me and won me over by the end.
West Bank, UK is a musical comedy, written (book) and directed by Oren Safdie with music and lyrics by Ronnie Cohen, which tells the story of Assaf, an Israeli who returns to his rent-controlled apartment in London after being dumped by his German girlfriend. When he arrives, he finds Aziz, a Palestinian refugee, has taken over the lease and has been living there for the past year while he was away. There is a mix-up as to who really owns the apartment, and without going into great detail, the point is that the two must now share the space and become roommates, as suggested by their new landlord, poignantly named NYC, who happens to be an American. The two try to get along, but eventually have to split the apartment in two spaces, each living on his own side. Sound familiar?
What is so successful about this production is its interpretation of such a heavy subject. Safdie and Cohen have chosen for that to be farcical and allegorical, which adds to its pleasant originality. There is a scene in the beginning of the show where Aziz and Assaf are watching a CNN broadcast of the bloody troubles of the Middle East. Two reporters go into song about how they "like the action hot, hot, hot if people get shot, shot, shot," dancing around to this pseudo "Copacabana"-style arrangement, and proclaiming "Maybe I'll make anchor if I show some sympathy." At that point, I knew I was in for something different, as I began to tap my foot to the beat.
In addition to four actors, the ensemble includes three musicians who play their instruments upstage the entire show and another musician who plays a sitar-like instrument in the balcony to the right of the audience. Mike Mosallam as Aziz and Jeremy Cohen as Assaf play their parts successfully, and harmonize well together. Mosallam is a lovable teddy bear whose meekness is charming and whose comic and musical theatre skills are utilized well in this part. Likewise, Cohen, as the Israeli, is intense and his solo towards the end of the show is a highlight.
The chorus members, however, are even more enjoyable to watch because they perfectly and comically portray an absurd variety of characters. Michelle Solomon skillfully steps into an assortment of shoes playing NYC, one of the CNN reporters, an orthodox Jew named Bathsheva, and a suicide bomber. Not only is she funny, but she inhabits this farcical world, never commenting on it the entire time. Anthony Patellis as the second chorus member also shows his talent, specifically as the other suicide bomber. His dance moves will make you giggle.
I was surprised at how successful and intelligent the show turned out to be. My judgmental tendencies were squashed by the end, and I was left to ponder what had just taken place. It was like sitting through a sitcom of the Israeli and Palestinian conflict, the audience being its laugh track. It may sound trite and disrespectful to treat such a serious topic with lightness and jokes, but you almost have to interpret it that way for anyone to listen. This show, specifically its authors and director and choreographer, took a risk: a pleasant and enjoyable and intelligent risk.