Mike Mosallam and Jeremy Cohen in West Bank, UK
(© David Gochfeld)
Mike Mosallam and Jeremy Cohen in West Bank, UK
(© David Gochfeld)
Couples don't get odder than Aziz (Mike Mosallam) and Assaf (Jeremy Cohen) -- a Palestinian man and an Israeli man who, like Neil Simon's Oscar Madison and Felix Ungar, find themselves having to share an apartment in the pointedly comic new musical West Bank, UK, now at La MaMa. While not everything in West Bank succeeds -- especially as bookwriter and director Oren Safdie piles on the allegory and comic absurdity -- a tune from composer/lyricist Ronnie L. Cohen or a bit of inspired writing from Safdie produces such mirth that the musical draws its audience irrevocably back in.

Like in Simon's The Odd Couple, these two men find themselves sharing a flat after romance has gone bad. Assaf, who has been dumped by his girlfriend, returns to his flat on London's West Bank, which he's left vacant for over two years -- only to find Aziz has been living there as a sublet of a sublet. Both men have been paying rent to the landlady, an American named 'NYC' (Michelle Solomon, who plays all the female roles). Torn by her attraction to Assaf and her reliance on the drugs that Aziz supplies, she suggests that the two men try living together.

From here, the show unfolds not so much as a book musical, but a series of skits about the two men sharing the apartment, each carrying an unmistakable allegorical significance. When Assaf and Aziz decide to share a bed because the apartment is so cold, they enter into a sexual relationship -- a sort of gesture of Israeli-Arab reconciliation. But, when Assaf invites a blind date over -- a conservative Jewess named Bathsheba -- tensions between the two men flare again. Later, NYC's illegitimate half-brother, a Russian named Igor (Anthony Patellis, who also plays multiple roles) further exacerbates the uneasy situation in the apartment (which is brought to life in vivid squalor by scenic designer Michael V. Moore).

With Igor's arrival, Cohen's score pops to life with an old-fashioned musical theater tune "We Love Diplomacy." Elsewhere, Cohen invokes country-and-western harmonies as Assaf and Aziz sing about their attempts to gain entry into America. When Bathsheba reveals a dark and naughty side, Cohen uses Latin rhythms while maintaining the Middle Eastern flavor that is carried throughout the impressively varied score.

Unfortunately, the tonal variations in Safdie's book mar the production. At times, Safdie's blend of comedy, political satire, and surrealism work marvelously in tandem. For example, when Assaf and Aziz argue and resort to drawing crude cartoons that insult the others' religion, Safdie invokes headlines of the not-too-distant past and incites both laughter and shudders in the audience. Elsewhere though, the piece feels simply sophomoric, particularly during a sequence that indicts bloodthirsty television reporters.

All of the material -- both music and book -- is brought to life with flair and zest by the four-person ensemble. Cohen and Mosallam are nearly indefatigable as the warring roommates -- navigating the absurdities of the piece with ease even as they deliver the songs with gusto. Solomon's comic flair -- and almost rubber-like face -- induces laughter throughout, and her work as the dichotomous Bathsheba is hilarious. Patellis works tirelessly, but with underconceived caricatures -- which, like much of West Bank UK, could score marvelously with further development.