Theater Review: ‘Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo’ on Broadway
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Robin Williams is a comic whirligig who demonstrated fairly early in his career, with the role of the motormouth DJ in Barry Levinson’s 1987 film “Good Morning, Vietnam,” that he could adapt his manic gifts to the big screen. And it’s a pleasure to report that this Oscar-winning veteran is able to translate his patented talents to the legit stage as well.
Making his Broadway acting debut in Rajiv Joseph’s “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” which opened Thursday at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, Williams portrays the freely philosophizing title cat of this daring drama set in war-mangled Iraq. The performance, guided by a feline level of tact and discretion, is at once confident and modestly calibrated.
Grizzled and scruffy like a Robinson Crusoe castaway, Williams submits himself wholly to the play’s utterly natural surrealism. Concerns that the actor might turn this into a vehicle for his signature shtick are dispelled right way: Williams is in complete sync with the blasted tragicomic vision of the playwright, whose ample humor is far too sneaky for stand-up showboating.
This production of “Bengal Tiger,” like the Center Theatre Group world premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in 2009 and the 2010 reprise at the Mark Taper Forum, is directed by Moisés Kaufman. With the exception of Kevin Tighe, who created the role of the curiously introspective tiger, the original Los Angeles cast has been maintained, and the ensemble has noticeably ripened.
The physical staging has been largely kept intact as well, and though there has been some tinkering with the writing and directing (which has shifted the emphasis in a more metaphysical and less political direction), the play has lost virtually none of its urgency and vigor. I stand behind my contention that it’s the most original drama written about the Iraq War.
Without an actor of Williams’ marquee draw, “Bengal Tiger” would likely not have made it to Broadway. Frankly, I’m a little surprised that it has. I would have expected the New York premiere to have been at the Public Theater, Playwrights Horizons or one of the other off-Broadway mainstays with a track record of boldly imagined new plays. But I’m glad that it has found a home in the commercial theater district not only because the work will challenge mainstream theatergoers but because I think it will leave the more sensitive among them profoundly moved.
The emotional charge of “Bengal Tiger” is predominantly carried through the character of Musa (Arian Moayed), the Arabic translator working with the U.S. military during the occupation of his still-smoldering country. The violence witnessed by this man, a topiary artist who created a garden of giant animals out of plants, has shattered his moral bearings. His sister, viciously raped and slaughtered by his employer, Uday Hussein (a flamboyant, fiendish Hrach Titizian), haunts his memory with traumatic insistence.
Musa wrestles painfully with the play’s open-ended questions: How can one survive when innocence is so wantonly violated? Who can one serve when callous destruction and greed seem to be inextricably bound up with power?
In Joseph’s theatrical cosmos, the dead refuse to be banished once their bodies grow cold. Instead, they remain onstage, meditating on the quandary of their seemingly meaningless ends just as they were given to reflect on the existential conundrums that dogged them when they drew breath.
The tiger is the first to ponder his posthumous predicament after being shot for biting the hand of a Marine. (“To die in captivity at the Baghdad Zoo. What a freaking life.”) The senselessness of the incident is indeed hard to get past, another instance of pointless bloodshed in a nation drowning in red.
While stationed in front of the tiger’s cage, Tom (a smoothly convincing Glenn Davis) shows Kev (Brad Fleischer) the golden gun he filched during a raid of one of the Hussein family mansions. (A gold toilet seat, buried for safekeeping, is also part of the loot.) When the tiger, baffled by hunger, digs into Tom’s hand, Kev, young, impressionable and slow-witted, kills the animal with the priceless pistol, leaving all parties in a spiral of disgust and despair.
This opening scene, which alternates between the banter of the soldiers and the musings of the imprisoned tiger, has trouble finding its rhythm. Fleischer, though spryly humorous, somewhat overplays Kev’s simpleton nature. The character’s mind is a warehouse of pop cultural junk, but a touch more realism would have made the satire sting all the more.
In general, the first act is patchier than the tauter second. There’s a staccato quality to the action, and Kaufman seems to be marking thematic points more deliberately than he did in L.A., as if out of fear that Broadway audiences might lose the interpretive thread.
But Joseph’s metaphoric inventiveness is magnificently displayed throughout, and the kaleidoscope of figures and images bespeaks a purely theatrical imagination. Few playwrights today would be intrepid enough to conjure a leper (an affecting Necar Zadegan) and allow her condition to pose a silent critique of the rapaciousness that sends Tom to her bombed-out colony to retrieve his precious toilet seat. And the dramatic freedom that permits Sheila Vand to transform from a teenage prostitute (asked to perform a very specific sexual act on Tom after he returns to duty with a prosthetic hand) to Hadia, Musa’s loving sister who meets her grim fate in the topiary garden, is as stylistically virtuosic as it is emotionally crushing.
Williams, whose experience in Mike Nichols’ 1988 off-Broadway production of “Waiting for Godot” with Steve Martin has prepared him for the acting challenge of blending into an art work (rather than dominating one), still gets the chance to showcase the fluidity that many ticket-buyers no doubt expressly came to see. In one moment of the tiger’s theological confusion, stoked by the paradox of why God would make a predator if murder is unjust, Williams mimes a rapid-fire series of gestures from world religions, all of them leading to the same state of desperate ignorance. This may not be what some theatergoers bargained for, but it’s an impressive feat of stagecraft that only this performer could have pulled off.
The ideas of Joseph’s play, in particular the plight of humanity forced to reconsider its primacy in the wake of its destructive path, inspire Williams’ discipline. He’s put himself at the drama’s service, and if that means ceding the stage to Moayed, whose poignancy has only deepened, so be it. A tiger can be generous, even when he’s in the grip of the mystery of a planet set ablaze by its own inhabitants.