Rajiv Joseph, the boldly adventurous author of "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo," begins "Guards at the Taj" on a Beckettian note.
The play, which opened Wednesday at the Geffen Playhouse's Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, poses for itself an initial challenge of making theater out of the most untheatrical of circumstances.
Two lowly guards in 17th century India are stationed with their backs turned to the newly erected Taj Mahal. They are prohibited from looking at the grand white marble mausoleum, which is about to be unveiled to the world after 16 years of construction.
The two men are also forbidden to talk. "Among the sacred oaths of the Mughal Imperial Guard is to never speak," Humayun (Raffi Barsoumian) reminds his childhood friend, Babur (Ramiz Monsef), who cannot keep his mouth shut.
Still in possession of a childlike sense of wonder, Babur asks Humayun, the more fearfully law-abiding of the two, to name the different kinds of birds that are serenading them. After inquiring into the mystery of the stars, he shares his ideas about a flying machine, but the only thing that gets Humayun to engage with him is the subject of the Imperial Harem.
Babur wants to know whether Humayun can use his father, "the highest of high command in the All-On-High Imperial Guard," to get them reassigned from the dawn watch to the women patrol. But Humayun, who has yet to earn his father's respect, says, "We'll both be gray and toothless before they let us guard the Harem."
The static situation, the comic bickering and the waiting for some increasingly unlikely redemptive miracle to occur place us squarely in "Waiting for Godot" territory. But the play, which freely reinvents harrowing myths surrounding the building of the Taj Mahal, takes an abrupt swerve in the next scene.
"Guards at the Taj" is a work that relies heavily on surprise, so the most I'll say is that the transition from Beckett's philosophical clowning to the macabre farce of Martin McDonagh (author of "The Pillowman," "A Behanding in Spokane" and other carnage-filled comedies) is smoothly pulled off.
The blood-soaked stage — consequence of an emperor who doesn't like his authority second-guessed — doesn't stop the laughter, though the humor shifts into a gallows mode.
The banter (playfully written in today's idiom) and shameless pratfalls can make Joseph's play seem like a sketch comedy. But serious concerns underlie the insouciant high jinks.
Questions of tyranny and freedom, the correctness of following brutal leadership and the place of beauty in our lives are explicitly taken up by the characters. This thematic material might at moments be a little too spelled out. But the most interesting meditation in the play, on the opposition between culture and nature, is delicately handled, thoughts on the subject arising in an appealing half-light.
Those noisy birds from the opening scene, it turns out, aren't simply a diversion planted by the playwright to get his characters talking. The Taj Mahal, an architectural expression of the desire to out-nature nature in its capacity for majestic creation, was built to never be surpassed. But human ambition of this order comes at a punishing price, one that will have Babur and Humayun dreaming of escape into the jungle, where all they will have to fear is tigers and snakes rather than a crazy despot and where a gargantuan flock of colorful birds can reveal to them a natural wonder as sublime as anything man-made.
As with Beckett's work, the interdependence of the characters, the aching tenderness lurking within the mutual exasperation, is what draws us into Joseph's story. This is a relatively small piece — the theatrical scope isn't as breathtaking as "Bengal Tiger" — but it is uniquely engineered. Most impressive of all perhaps is Joseph's ability to balance the increasingly creepy slapstick with the hand-clasping humanity of two characters who, like it or not, are as bonded as brothers.
The production, directed by Giovanna Sardelli on a stunning set by Tom Buderwitz that visually keeps pace with the play's abrupt turns, never lets us lose sight of what connects Humayun and Babur, whose historical names suggest a familial relationship. (Humayun, the second Mughal emperor, was the son of Babur, whose reign over his newly conquered kingdom was short-lived).
"Guards at the Taj" had its world premiere earlier this year off-Broadway courtesy of the Atlantic Theatre Company. But there's nothing secondary about the Geffen production.
The acting is rich, varied and tinged with a sweetness that allows us to better tolerate some of the more shocking occurrences.
Barsoumian shades Humayun's regimented nature with just enough doubt and regret. Monsef doesn't overplay the cleverness inspiring Babur's innocent enthusiasms but it is clear whose imagination has more depth.
Together these performers find the heart that makes "Guards at the Taj" not merely audacious but touchingly so.
'Guards at the Taj'
Where: Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 15.
Info: (310) 208-5454, www.geffenplayhouse.com
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes