September 18, 2019

Mideast allegory becomes roommate musical

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has stymied generations of statesmen and commentators, so why not try a witty song-and-dance musical?

Such was the thought of playwright Oren Safdie and composer-lyricist Ronnie Cohen, and the result of their collaboration is “West Bank, UK,” which opens March 21 at the Malibu Stage Company.

The protagonists are Israeli Assaf Ben-Moshe Benvenisti and Palestinian Aziz Hamoud, and their battleground is a rent-controlled flat on London’s West Bank.

Assaf (Jeremy Cohen) returns to the flat after being dumped by his German girlfriend, only to find that in the meantime Aziz (Mike Mosallam) has moved in.

Their landlord, named NYC, is an American and, like his country’s State Department, urges the two men to work out their differences and learn to live together in harmony.

Assaf and Aziz find it difficult to submerge their differences, then discover a common bond in their fondness for Middle Eastern food and dislike of — what else — America.

But their temporary friendship proves fragile and is tested by various visitors, including a male and female suicide bomber, and a hard-line religious woman, personifying West Bank settlers.

The musical had its premiere at New York’s La MaMa Experimental Theater and was received by reviews ranging from warm applause to downright raves.

Safdie and Cohen “do an excellent job of avoiding the most obvious pitfalls — partisanship, preachiness and political naivete — even if they get bogged down in allegory,” The New York Times wrote.

The Wall Street Journal judged “West Bank, UK” as “a caustically witty four-person musical with a Middle Eastern-flavored score that succeeds in wringing hard-nosed fun out of clearly serious matters … [a] smart little show that works.”

Safdie and Cohen met as graduate students at Columbia University in the early 1990s and seemed fated, by background and inclination, to collaborate from the beginning.

Both their paternal grandparents arrived in Palestine in the early part of the last century, Safdie’s from Syria and Cohen’s from Yemen. Both their fathers “intermarried” with Ashkenazi women and achieved fame in different fields.

Safdie’s father is the renowned architect Moshe Safdie, the designer, locally, of the Skirball Cultural Center. Cohen’s father is composer Avshalom Cohen, whose songs are familiar to every Israeli child.

While still at Columbia, Safdie became a producer at New York’s small West End Gate Theatre and put on Cohen’s first effort, “Sliced Tomatoes.”

The two men subsequently joined talents for the well-received “Jews & Jesus,” a musical about interfaith dating.

Safdie’s best-known play is “Private Jokes, Public Places,” a comedy about architecture, and he wrote the screenplay for the movie “You Can Thank Me Later” with Ellen Burstyn.

Now in their early middle age, the two collaborators have even come to look alike.

Talking about his current play, Safdie said that his two protagonists “reflect the personalities of their countries … at times they try to live together, they even get along for a while, then they split apart, and the outside world intrudes. The trick is to present the two men as individuals, not stereotypes.”

Safdie finds some encouragement in the warm friendship that has developed between the two lead actors, though Jeremy Cohen is a staunch Zionist and Mike Mosallam is a devout Muslim.

“However, they never discuss politics off-stage,” Safdie observed.

Performances of “West Bank, UK” are March 21-April 13, Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons, at the Malibu Stage Company, 29243 Pacific Coast Highway. $20-$25. For reservations, call (310) 589-1998.