It’s all about the theater today. I’ve seen plays lately that range from the sublime to the dreadful. Let’s start with the sublime.

As soon as the curtain rises to reveal a line of men dressed in pale-blue uniforms and carrying instrument cases in what appears to be an Israeli bus station, you know you are in good hands. They seem just a bit wary, a little discomfited to be where they are. Their uniforms look fairy-tale resplendent compared to the grubby green of the Israeli soldiers, and their manners charmingly old-fashioned next to the standard Israelii gruffness. But it’s when one of the men confuses Petah Tikvah, where they have been invited to perform at the opening of an Arab cultural center, with Bet Hatikvah, a godforsaken speck of a town in the periphery, that “The Band’s Visit” really takes off. The rest of the 90-minute show is a sweet and sad examination of the sorrows and regrets as well as the promise and possibility in every life, punctuated with wonderful songs and pitch-perfect performances.

Adapted by Itamar Moses from the 2007 Israeli film of the same name, the show sticks pretty close to the original plot. When the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra get on the wrong bus and end up in the middle of the Negev, they try to explain that they are scheduled to perform at the new Arab cultural center. “There is no Arab cultural center,” the cafe owner Dina explains. “There is no culture here at all.” Since there are no more buses out of town, Dina invites the men to spend the day and night with her and some other townspeople, and leave in the morning for Petach Tikvah. Rather than feeling suspicious and frightened at the arrival of a group of unknown Arabs, the townspeople of Bet Hatikvah seem delighted that something different has finally happened. There are actually new people to talk with.

The orchestra’s leader, Tawfik, reluctantly agrees, and he along with the flirtatious trumpeter Haled go with Dina, while the clarinetist Simon, who has written a few bars of an unfinished concerto, joins the unhappy young couple Itzik and Iris.  They live with her father, Avrum, and their baby. Itzik has been out of work for some time, and as soulfully played by John Cariani, feels both stuck and at loose ends, while his wife is resentful and frustrated that she has to take care of “two children.”  

In a fantastic performance, Katrina Lenk embodies Dina, a lonely, disappointed woman who still has the capacity to yearn for something more. In the best number in the show, “Omar Sharif,” she recalls how she and her mother listened to the famous singer Umm Kulthum on Egyptian radio and watched Omar Sharif in Egyptian movies when she was young, thrilling to the romance and mystery. “A jasmine wind from the west and the south/ honey in my ear, spice in my mouth,” Lenk sings. Lenk was terrific in “Indecent,” the recent show about a scandalous Yiddish play, and she is even better here. Exuding sensuality and a time-roughened sensitivity, she partners perfectly with Tony Shalhoub as Tawfik. He is as reserved and repressed as she is needy of affection and stimulation.

Scott Pask’s ingenious set design symbolizes the play’s themes of attempted and missed connections. As the rotating stage moves, the actors step on and off, moving forward and backward. The shabby tables outside of Dina’s, the modest dining room at Itzik’s, all capture the essence of Bet Hatikvah, a town that the government plopped in the middle of nowhere. In its simplicity, the set avoids swamping the delicate story, and that’s something to be grateful for.

Dina describes her hometown, “Stick a pin in a map of the desert./Build a road in the middle of the desert./Pour cement on the spot in the desert.” The lyricist/composer of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and The Full Monty,” David Yazbek has written lyrics that are consistently clever and often very moving, and his music beautifully combines Middle Eastern rhythms with classic musical-theater ballads. The songs definitely move the action or reveal character, as musical theater songs need to do. Director David Cromer keeps the whole show moving forward seamlessly.  It’s an exceptionally successful collaboration that makes for a wonderful show.  

Joe Papp would be Bored

Now on to the dreadful. Joseph Papp founded the Public Theater and brought audiences “A Chorus Line,” “Sticks and Bones,” “The Normal Heart,” and “Talk Radio,” among many, many other extraordinary plays.  Papp, whose first language was Yiddish, didn’t learn English until he went to school in Brooklyn. By all accounts, he was a larger-than-life figure who adored the theater.  

The current production at the Public, “Illyria” by Richard Nelson, isn’t interested in Papp’s Jewish heritage. It tells how a young Joe Papp attempted to bring Shakespeare (in English!) to the masses in Central Park, free of charge. Unfortunately, Nelson, whose work has appeared at the Public several times before, manages to drain every bit of magic out of this tale and somehow succeeds in turning Joe Papp, once considered the towering monarch of nonprofit theater in New York City, into an annoying kvetch.

Set in the 1950s, “Illyria” puts a large cast on stage and then leaves them there to chat, gossip, and eat for almost two hours. For a viewer unfamiliar with Joe Papp, the Shakespeare Festival, George C. Scott, and HUAC, the play would be incomprehensible. That is, if they could hear most of it. Nelson believes in “conversational” theater, which translates into the actors speaking in normal tones. Of course, in a theater, that means that many people can’t hear them at all.  Not that there is much to hear. Much of the dialogue concerns the rivalries and backbiting that went on in Papp’s first troupe, and his struggle with Robert Moses, who was in charge of the city’s parks at the time. The minutiae of what happened almost seventy years ago is so much inside baseball to an audience today, and Nelson doesn’t bother to show us how Papp succeeded in funding the Shakespeare Festival, which we all know is alive and well. He doesn’t bother to show us anything much at all; nothing happens in “Illyria” except for office politics and name dropping.  There’s not much magic in this theatrical production, which would be as disappointing to Joe Papp as to the audience.

These Bronx Jews Speak Yiddish

Sometimes a play falls right in the middle–not terrible but not as good as you’d hoped. Clifford Odets’ drama “Awake and Sing” opened in 1935 as a production of the influential Group Theater. Dealing with the exigencies of poverty suffered by a Bronx family, it was one of the first plays outside of the Yiddish theater to put a definitive Jewish family on stage and to provide them with simple, colloquial language, an English infused with the rhythms of Yiddish. Three years later, the play returned with a Yiddish-speaking cast in the Federal Theatre 1938 production. There have been numerous revivals since then. Now “Awake and Sing” has returned to its cultural roots, using the 1938 Yiddish translation by Chaver Paver, in a new production by the New Yiddish Rep at the 14th Street Y, with English supertitles.

Like many artists and writers in the 1930s, Odets felt rage and despair at the crushing hardship of the Depression and looked to socialism and communism as a more humane alternative to the American economic system and its endless scrabble for money and status. Accordingly, “Awake and Sing” offers two solutions to that dilemma. The large family in the play, the Bergers, is as obsessed with money as are all who don’t have enough. Bessie Berger, the matriarch, played by Ronit Asheri-Sandler, is the leader of the realist camp. Living in a large Bronx apartment and struggling to make do, she has hopes that her children, Ralph and Hennie, will manage to snatch some security from their jobs or relationships. Her husband Myron (Eli Rosen) is a lackadaisical shlemiel, but Bessie’s true antagonist is her father Jacob, who lives with them. An idealist clinging to the dream of a life of dignity for working people, a life “that is not printed on dollar bills,” Jacob (David Mandelbaum) has put his faith in his grandson Ralph (Moshe Lobel) and plies him with socialist propaganda all day long. The older Hennie (an excellent Lea Kalisch) is trapped between the dialectical visions of Bessie and Jacob. Enraged by her mother’s constant nagging to link up with the recent immigrant Sam Feinschreiber (Luzer Twersky), she rejects another suitor, Moe Axelrod (an effective Gera Sandler), a flashy wheeler dealer also firmly in the pragmatist camp.

What saves Odets’ work from being merely agitprop is the quality of the performances, and they are mixed at best in this production. The role of Bessie is especially tricky; she can easily come across as the worst of the stereotypical Jewish mothers–grasping, manipulative, alternately cajoling and demanding, endlessly intrusive. If we don’t see her bottomless fear of losing the little her family has and her own squelched desires, she’s just a harridan and the idealists win the day without much of a battle. Here, Moe has taken up the fight for the pragmatists; because he’s willing to ignore social proprieties–something Bessie could never do–he is a more convincing proponent of getting along to get what you want. A wounded veteran, Moe doesn’t expect anything from the government or from anyone else. His assorted pursuits as a bootlegger and bookie keep him flush, another indication from Odets that capitalism is little more than legalized gangsterism.

Odets was a major influence on the next generation of playwrights, including Arthur Miller, whose “Death of a Salesman” covers much of the same thematic ground as “Awake and Sing.” New Yiddish Rep presented a transcendent production of the Miller play two years ago, which captured the Jewish essence of that work, a play that never mentions Jews or anything Jewish. “Awake and Sing” is overtly Jewish, but because it is so tightly bound to a particular time and milieu, it feels less relevant today. That’s odd, since people are still struggling to maintain their place in the economic order. Those people tend not  to be Jews nowadays, but the desperation is the same.

I saw this production early in its run so the performances may have improved as the ensemble became more comfortable and cohesive. New Yiddish Rep’s track record is solid and even a less-than-perfect production is worth seeing.