West Bank, UK is a musical romp through a political minefield: a musical comedy about a Palestinian and an Israeli forced to share a rent-controlled apartment in London’s West Bank. While playwright Oren Safdie and composer and lyricist Ronnie Cohen deserve credit for a certain measure of creative and political audacity, they bear responsibility for an almost juvenile rendering of a poorly developed storyline and puppetlike characters. When Israeli ex-patriot Assaf Ben-Moshe Benvenisti (Jeremy Cohen) breaks up with his German girlfriend and returns home to his rent-controlled flat, he discovers that Palestinian refugee Aziz Hamoud (Mike Mosallam) has taken over his lease. Their American landlord is torn between the two men and urges them to work out their differences and learn to live together in harmony. The allegory is in place and the timing of this show’s run in New York lands conveniently at the close of the Annapolis talks, offering journalists a soft angle to the story of renewed American efforts in the Middle East peace process.
This premise of personalizing a raging conflict is an ingenious one but the choices made here reduce the complexity of Israeli-Palestinian relations to a sitcom punctuated with catchy tunes. Or rather, a series of catchy tunes run together with sitcom dialogue since the musical numbers almost overrun the straight dialogue. This may be a good thing because some of the songs have clever moments and the singing is quite good.
One regret of this reviewer is that the purely instrumental interludes aren’t more substantial. These interludes provide a welcome break from the camp of the show; in these moments, the pain and loss of the Middle East conflict come to life. Jessie Kotanski’s performance on the oud (Middle Eastern lute), in particular, offers a haunting, if losing, call for quiet contemplation. Three of the musicians’ (Scott Baldyga, Jake Shulman-Ment, Chriz Zaborowski) placement on the stage in a sort of central, windowed cage seems emblematic of their caged-in relation to the action, while the oud player is exiled to a balcony above the stage, making its notes all the more plaintive.
The two stars of the show are truly gifted performers and do an admirable job of infusing their highly limited roles with strong emotion and individuality. Jeremy Cohen spends a lot of the play in an undershirt flexing his considerable sex appeal and this is a great contrast to Mike Mosallam’s grandfatherly, overweight persona, corduroy- and cardigan-bound. And yet it is Mr. Mosallam’s homespun physicality that offers the most electrifying moment of the show when it suddenly explodes into dance in one of the final musical numbers.
In addition to the two main players, a parade of caricatures troops through the action, including a lesbian suicide bomber and a nymphomaniac Orthodox Jewish woman. The latter two are played, among other roles, by Michelle Solomon, who camps up each performance to the same painfully exaggerated degree. Antony Patellis offers a series of somewhat muted counterpoints to Ms. Solomon’s performances; it’s almost a relief to focus on his quieter version of the silliness.
Having voiced so many complaints about this production, I need to break a rule of criticism and describe the audience’s reception. It was glowing. Hearty laughter and applause greeted every short scene. I was reminded of my strongly negative response to one of the biggest musical hits of the decade: Avenue Q. If my evaluation and last night’s audience are any indication, West Bank, UK may be a runaway success.