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Katrina Lenk: Her first Tony nomination, but don't expect it to be her last

Katrina Lenk: Her first Tony nomination, but don't expect it to be her last
Tony Award front-runner Katrina Lenk plays Dina, the cafe owner stranded in the Israeli desert, in "The Band's Visit." (Matt Murphy)

It’s a show where practically nothing happens and the prevailing emotion is sadness — an air of isolation and loss, of dreams being dulled by time and slowly getting smothered in desert dust.

On paper “The Band’s Visit” might sound like a slog, but credit a cast who can parlay droll humor and humanity into the unlikely charmer of the Broadway season and the recipient of 11 Tony nominations, including one for lead actress Katrina Lenk.

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She plays Dina, a café owner in a desolate Israeli town where the locals are, as one song’s chorus goes, “waiting for something — for anything — to happen.”

Dina is desperate for a change of scenery when, by accident, new scenery comes to her: Egyptian musicians from the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra get lost on their way to perform at a cultural center in Petah Tikva.

Dina informs the players that they’ve landed not in Petah Tikva but in Bet Hativka — “with a B, like in basically bleak and beige and blah, blah, blah.”

Through Lenk’s words, face and body language, we know she’s trapped in a daily loop of longing. She’s waiting — for something, for anything.

“There’s two kinds of waiting: There’s the kind where you’re expecting something new or even strange. But this kind of waiting,” she sings wistfully, motioning to the lifeless life around her, “you keep looking off into the distance, even though you know the view is never going to change.”

For Lenk, the role is another turning point. After studying music and theater at Northwestern University, Lenk devoted herself to theater in California. She starred in South Coast Repertory’s 2005 production of Bertolt Brecht's "The Caucasian Chalk Circle," was declared “astonishing” in The Times’ 2008 review of “Lovelace: A Rock Opera” and was part of a fresh Reprise Theater Company revival of “Cabaret” at UCLA’s Royce Hall in 2011.

The actress helped to launch Paula Vogel’s play “Indecent” at La Jolla Playhouse in 2015 and followed the play to Broadway last year, but it’s her poignant, heart-aching turn as Dina that is poised to make her a star.

In one scene in “The Band’s Visit,” Lenk’s café owner shares a bench with Tony Shalhoub’s bandleader. “This is the park” she says, in their shared language of imperfect English. “It’s no look like a park. You have to imagine.” Where there is sand and only more sand, Dina says she sees grass, children at play, the sea. “Do you hear the sea?” she asks. “Yes,” the bandleader responds.

And in that moment, we hear it too.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘The Band’s Visit’

Total Tony nominations: 11

Other key races: best musical, lead actor (Tony Shalhoub as Tewfiq), featured actor (Ari'el Stachel as Haled), direction (David Cromer) and score (David Yazbek)

Lenk with Tony Shalhoub at the park bench in "The Band's Visit."
Lenk with Tony Shalhoub at the park bench in "The Band's Visit." (Matt Murphy)
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