Howard Sherman: Stage stories of kindness offer balm in face of real-life dramas

Katrina Lenk and Tony Shalhoub in The Band's Visit. Photo: Matthew Murphy Katrina Lenk and Tony Shalhoub in The Band's Visit. Photo: Matthew Murphy
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If drama is, according to one of its dictionary definitions, “a state, situation, or series of events involving interesting or intense conflict of forces,” then one could say that several shows in New York right now – two of them being Broadway musicals – are undramatic.

The Band’s Visit, which opened last week, is the story of an Egyptian police band. Due to confusion surrounding the similar pronunciation of two Israeli towns (for those who don’t speak Hebrew), the band ends up in the wrong one and is forced to stay overnight in a tiny desert community with no hotel.

There are personal interactions, friendships are born, a hint of romance, but barely a whisper of the kind of Middle East conflict that fuels the play Oslo and so much conversation about that part of the world. Indeed, the Band’s Visit may be the most apolitical piece of fiction about the Middle East ever devised – which is, of course, its own kind of political statement.

Come from Away, which opened in the spring (full disclosure: my wife is one of the producers) is the story of aeroplane passengers bound for New York on 9/11 who were diverted to the tiny town of Gander, Newfoundland when the attacks resulted in the closure of US airspace.

Read our feature about the creation of Come from Away

Not unlike The Band’s Visit, this fact-based story is about people arriving in a location that wasn’t part of their itinerary and how they are taken in by the locals. Unlike what most might anticipate for a 9/11 story, the horror of the day and those after it are somewhat distant; the show does not seek to put its audiences through the pain of the events once again or consider the ramifications of terrorism.

In terms of significant action, very little happens overtly in these musicals. They are small slices of life, prompted by error or tragedy. But having watched The Band’s Visit twice (I saw its original Off-Broadway run as well) and Come from Away once, I can attest to the enthusiasm with which audiences appear to genuinely embrace the shows. I have a deep appreciation for the reminder of humanity’s best impulses that they evoke in me. But even trying to delineate a plot does them a disservice.

Also on stage in New York is Richard Nelson’s Illyria, a play based upon a slice of theatrical history; namely the earliest days of the New York Shakespeare Festival, now known as The Public Theater.

It focuses on a moment of crisis in the company’s early years, when it appeared that the primary director might be defecting. Yet, the show’s mood is one of consideration, reverie and even melancholy rather than the sound and the fury one might expect from young artists such as Joe Papp and Stuart Vaughan. In tone, it is as if the Apple family, from Nelson’s famed quartet of plays, were having dinner to discuss forming an amdram troupe.

While all of these shows were developed over several years, it is worth noting that these gentle stories of kindness, camaraderie, sympathy and decency have arrived at a moment when American life on the public stage is fraught with drama – a time when the moods of many citizens are often inflamed to anger or despair by a single tweet from the White House’s Oval Office.

While I have read that horror films are often popular in times of national crisis, that they offer a safe catharsis that provides a release valve for anxieties, these shows seem to be the opposite. They offer a respite from the onslaught of news and opinion, not by suggesting that we tap our troubles away like a light musical, but rather that we remember the things we share, instead of the things that tear us up or tear apart.

This week in US theatre

While many performers may vie for the title of the Queen of Disco, if Donna Summer is not the regent herself she is certainly royalty. Her story and music is now being brought to the stage by Des McAnuff and Sergio Trujillo, the director and choreographer behind Jersey Boys, in Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, which makes its debut tomorrow night at the La Jolla Playhouse. Three actresses portray the singer a different points in her career, with the story by authors Colman Domingo, Robert Cary, and McAnuff.

British ex-pat David Cale has been a memorable performer of his own one-man shows for many years, but when his newest solo work, Harry Clarke, opens on Sunday night at the Vineyard Theatre Off-Broadway, the title role will be performed not by Cale, but by Billy Crudup. The titular character is a Midwestern man who moves to New York and, pretending to be an Englishman, insinuates himself into a family’s life. Leigh Silverman directs.

Already scheduled for Broadway later this season, the newest play from Tracy Letts, The Minutes, premieres at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre on Sunday night. William Peterson, well known to many for his role on the original CSI series, is part of the nine-actor cast under the direction of Anna D Shapiro, which portrays small-town politics and how they reflect on the country at large.