If globalization tears down cultural walls the way it has economic barriers, Arian Moayed may be a star of the future. The New York-based actor plays an Iraqi translator in Rajiv Joseph's acclaimed new play, "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo," which runs through June 7 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Onstage, he is Musa, a gardener who becomes a translator for American troops after the fall of Baghdad in 2003. What may be less immediately apparent is that he's also translating for you, the audience.
In "Bengal Tiger," Moayed's character made large topiary animals for Uday Hussein's palace garden. A symbol of the Iraqi people, Musa journeys through several rings of hell as Hussein rapes and kills his sister and the translator confronts greedy American soldiers guarding a Baghdad zoo who pillage his country. In this surreal ghost story, where all species of dead haunt the living, Musa eventually puts that behind him as he heads toward an uncertain future.
"I've had people come up to me afterward and say, 'I really felt for your character,' and that's important to me," says Moayed, 29. "Because if they can feel for this poor Iraqi guy who used to be an artist, who's trying to make ends meet, who's had so many raw deals in a two-hour play, people will realize he's not a terrorist, and that's very important to me as an artist.
"It's important for American audiences to realize that Middle Eastern people aren't murderers, we're not fanatics, we're not extreme Muslims. We're people."
In person, Moayed seems years younger than his character. He arrives for an interview at the Center Theatre Group offices in a variation on the funky ensemble he'd donned for the audience talk-back session after the play the night before -- jeans, a striped short-sleeve shirt with a contrasting tie and a plaid flat cap atop a halo of dark curls. Unlike the world-weary Musa, Moayed is infused with boyish enthusiasm, and his speech is peppered with words like "totally."
He was born in Iran to a banker and his wife, who left after the 1979 revolution and eventually settled in a Chicago suburb, where he grew up. As an American with one foot in the Middle East, he considers himself "the cultural ambassador of the Moayed family."
In 2000, he went back to Iran to visit relatives and explore his cultural identity, a mission that had an unexpected result. "It just confused it because everyone thought of me as an American," he recalls. "I wanted to find roots and see where the connections are, and it exploded in a different way. It made the extreme gap between our two cultures more prevalent."
But what he ultimately came away with was a sense of what they had in common. "All of my cousins -- and I have lots of them -- everyone wants to come to the States," he says. "They don't want to be there under a crazy regime. Going there really opened my eyes to the fact that everyone has a dream of moving up the ladder."
As an actor and as the artistic director of Waterwell, a small experimental theater company in New York that takes on the issues of the day, Moayed connects the dots for people onstage. He has played characters from across the Middle East -- both Arab and Israeli (he played an Israeli soldier, perhaps ironically guarding a Gaza zoo, directed by Jo Bonney in Naomi Wallace's "The Fever Chart" at New York's Public Theater last spring). He even played LBJ and Jesse Jackson in Waterwell's "The/King/Operetta" in 2007.
What he hasn't played -- and won't -- is a terrorist, a boundary that has largely kept him outside Hollywood. "There are big Hollywood smash hits in the last two years that in 20 or 30 years, we're going to look back at and be embarrassed," he says of the stereotyping. "I have a 6-month-old daughter named Olive, and if she looks at the work I've done and sees me as a crazy terrorist, I'm going to be really ashamed of that, because she's half-Persian, and I want her to know there is so much more to us, to our people."
Moayed's refusal to play terrorists may limit his career in Hollywood, but the theater has offered a flowering of opportunities, with plays grappling in a more sophisticated way with the turmoil in that region as Americans' interest in it has grown, especially since Sept. 11.
He first read "Bengal Tiger" when it was workshopped in New York two years ago, but other commitments prevented him from auditioning until 10 days before rehearsals began for the Los Angeles production. Director Moisés Kaufman, who found the role of Musa "very hard to cast," says Moayed matched his elusive ideal.
"He reminds me of a young Dustin Hoffman," says Kaufman, whose work "33 Variations" is nominated for a Tony for best play. "He has that incredible sensitivity, and I needed somebody who had incredible emotional availability. The role is written in a very three-dimensional way, so it needed a three-dimensional actor."
Moayed was also scrupulous in crafting an authentic character with the correct Middle Eastern accent. Although he speaks Farsi, he doesn't speak Iraqi Arabic, so he surreptitiously taped the translator hired for the play and studied her Iraqi-accented English. "Iraqis are very even-toned, monotone. Farsi is a lot more sing-song," he says and demonstrates.
While Moayed portrays characters with identifiable dreams onstage, he works toward his own, which is a universe where Middle Easterners are considered, well, average. As he puts it, "I'm waiting for the Iranian American sitcom. That's the next step."