Three years ago, when actor Ari’el Stachel first put on the charm as suave Egyptian musician Haled and actor Etai Benson conjured crippling insecurity as bashful Israeli homebody Papi—their characters in Broadway’s The Band’s Visit—it wasn’t in a rehearsal room or even an audition room; it was in the living room of Stachel’s Harlem apartment.
Audition sides in hand, the two best friends pored over lines and offered each other feedback before they auditioned for the initial workshop of the now 11-time Tony-nominated musical. They were dead set on playing the unlikely pals side by side—no alternatives.
The two first met in 2013, during the workshop of a show called Damascus Square. Stachel had just graduated from NYU and was young and hungry and interested in learning from fellow Israeli-American actor Benson, who graduated four years prior from University of Michigan and had already appeared on Broadway.
“There’s just something about the culture that immediately connects,” says Stachel. The two bonded over Israeli-American humor, their parents’ ways (both Stachel and Benson were born to Israeli fathers and American mothers), the Middle Eastern culture pulsing through Damascus Square (“We’re so used to our work and our culture being two separate worlds, and suddenly they collided in a massive way,” says Benson), and the food.
A little crew from Damascus Square—including Band’s Visit co-star Sharone Sayegh—began meeting for monthly brunches at 12 Chairs in the West Village because they served a classic Yemeni dish: jachnun. Nearly inseparable, Stachel and Benson soon felt like “two sides of an Israeli coin,” Benson says.
So when producers announced the workshop for The Band’s Visit, the two began to dream about sharing the stage not just in a Middle Eastern story, but in an Israeli one.
The stakes felt high to both of them, even provoking physical anxiety in Stachel. “You put a very different kind of pressure on yourself,” he continues, “because wow, this is so culturally and ethnically perfect for me if I don’t get it, what does that mean? And we felt a responsibility, in a sense, because we knew these people, we knew the culture, we knew the film very well.”
Benson booked the earliest 2015 reading; Stachel did not. Then, when director David Cromer took Hal Prince’s place, Stachel booked the 2016 Off-Broadway production and Benson, devastated, was left out. But, upon The Band’s Visit’s transfer from award-winning Off-Broadway run to Broadway, re-casting was in order. Stachel, who earned a 2016 Drama Desk nomination for his work as Haled, was set to go to Broadway, and after re-auditioning, Benson finally booked Papi in the fall of 2017.
Now the two star alongside each other on Broadway, and Stachel’s racked up a Tony nomination. “It’s extremely exciting, but that’s actually not what fills your spirit,” says Stachel. “What fills it is really meaningful connection. There’s this fusion of our interests and our cultural background that makes our friendship extremely rare.”
“And that creates a palpable chemistry onstage,” says Benson.
“I trust him,” says Benson of his friend. “I trust his taste. I trust he will tell me the truth. The thing I find very special about our friendship is that there’s nothing that I would say to someone else that I wouldn’t say to your face. We speak truth to each other.”
“He knows my soul,” says Stachel. “There’s a groundedness and he often can harness me if he sees me going astray.”
Watching them as they pose for photos on the rooftop of midtown’s PHD Terrace, the two seem like co-hosts of a housewarming party meets improv comedy set: welcoming and ready to entertain in an absurdly goofy kind of way. Messing around and whispering to each other in Hebrew in between flashes, the two friends understand each other so intimately they laugh before the other finishes the joke, but there’s also a profound sense of support.
There are days Stachel’s anxiety kicks in onstage and Benson knows right away. “He could feel I was panicking and he would just look,” says Stachel. Benson’s mere presence calms him. “I can see his eyes saying, ‘It’s cool, you got this.’ And that brings me back down.”
Of course, there are other moments when looking each other in the eye can be risky. “A lot of times we’ll mess with each other,” says Stachel. “I have this grin that you call—"
“The used-car salesman grin,” interjects Benson. “When he says, ‘You know maybe I go with you, like tourist.”
“And I’ll purposely hold the smile,” Stachel laughs.
“And it drives me crazy and he knows it does,” Benson chuckles. “Once we catch the giggles it’s very, very difficult.”
“We’ve done a scene once where we didn’t make eye contact” for fear of breaking, says Stachel.
“That’s the danger of the chemistry,” says Benson.
But for the duo, the fact that they have the opportunity to experience those moments is the reward for the years-long rollercoaster ride. “I vividly remember the first week of rehearsal for Broadway,” says Stachel. “We played the scene and I don’t think I’ve had that much fun onstage.”
“It was just the culmination of everything we had been through with this piece,” Benson adds. “We weren’t in his living room, we weren’t Skyping, we were in the rehearsal room for a Broadway production of The Band’s Visit saying these words—to each other.”