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.
Looking for meaning and God in a war zone is bound to leave you in limbo.
Rajiv Joseph weaves that compelling but not-so-new idea throughout his imaginative and well-acted play, "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo," which opened last night at the Richard Rodgers Theatre.
The ensemble dramedy is embedded in 2003 Iraq, where every character yearns for connection but is mangled by violence. Each ends up a predator or a ghost or both.
The play, a Pulitzer Prize runnerup seen in 2009 in Los Angeles, brings its L.A. cast, with one starry exception: Robin Williams now plays the Bengal big cat.
The Oscar winner is known for zany antics, but don't expect any of that or a tour de force in his Broadway acting debut, which finds him looking shaggy and bearded and dressed in khakis, not some "Cats"-like costume. It's not that kind of feline.
Williams is restrained, focused and bitingly amusing as Joseph's voice of reason. He's a hunter turned philosopher who doles out sly barbs about the absurd cruelty running rampant around him, on the streets of Baghdad and in the hereafter, where the tiger lands early on.
Brooklyn playwright Joseph typically populates his plays with damaged people, as seen this winter in his affecting two-hander, "Gruesome Playground Injuries."
He's true to form in this work, which begins with two U.S. soldiers guarding the zoo. Cocky Tom (Glenn Davis) and boneheaded Kev (a jumpy Brad Fleischer, who eventually settles down) are pawing a gold-plated pistol that Tom stole during a lethal raid on Uday Hussein's mansion.
When Tom tries to feed the tiger, it bites off his hand; Kev kills the beast with the gilded gun. He unravels when he's later visited by the dead animal.
The gun ends up in the possession of Uday's former gardener, Musa (a soulful Arian Moayed). Musa now works as a military translator, but can't shake the ghost of Uday (a chilling Hrach Titizian) or what he did to his sister, Hadia (Sheila Vand). When Tom returns to Baghdad to retrieve his valuable weapon, the endless chain of death and haunting continues.
Director Moises Kaufman skillfully guides the cast through scenes of violence and tenderness, as well as on Earth and the afterlife, where enlightenment is too little, too late. David Lander's shadowy lights and David Zinn's costumes enrich the atmosphere. Derek McLane's spare towering tiled Middle Eastern set is evocative but feels a little lost on the large stage.
There is much to admire in the play, including its commentary on war and its aftershocks on both soldiers and civilians. The walking-dead Uday is an inspired stroke — a reminder of atrocious inhumanity.
Most of all, the sheer theatricality of Joseph's work makes it worth celebrating.
On the downside, the play sometimes overstates its themes and lacks momentum; it grinds along in episodes that fail to build. An extended exchange between Tom and a prostitute feels extraneous, even as it triggers a memory for Musa.
Despite all the ghosts, "Bengal Tiger" isn't as stirring as it strives to be. It restates a famous 1960s antiwar poster that noted: "War is not healthy for children and other living things."
Like soldiers, gardeners and tigers.
Robin Williams is in a tricky situation. If he launches into his familiar, manic style, he's accused of being predictable. If he soft-pedals and goes introspective, then he's underusing his own strengths.
Rajiv Joseph's "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo," which opened last night on Broadway, blends black humor and surreal drama. Yet the comedian's portrayal of the title's big cat is so consistently understated that it becomes self-effacing. Like the show in general, it doesn't deliver on its promise.
Granted, the tiger isn't in great shape. Sporting threadbare clothes and a scruffy beard, Williams looks like a castaway after a year at sea. His part isn't all that big, and he melds into the ensemble with a creditable lack of ego. At the same time, why hire him and his undeniable "OMG, it's Robin Williams!" presence?
The play is set in 2003, just after US troops have taken the Iraqi capital. At the start, the tiger is in a mangled cage, guarded by a pair of Marines. These guys are hardly America's proudest: Tom (Glenn Davis) brags about stealing the gold-plated gun and toilet seat of Saddam Hussein's late son Uday; Kev (Brad Fleischer) is dumb as a post. Their greed and stupidity lead to Tom losing his hand to the tiger, whom Kev shoots dead.
Enter the ghosts.
In the play, a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize, broken Baghdad is a kind of limbo where the living and the dead engage in conversations, and both people and animals triple their IQ after they die.
At least the tiger isn't depraved like Uday (the excellent Hrach Titizian, creepily flip), who taunts his gentle gardener, Musa (Arian Moayed). The Husseins' criminal legacy is hard to eradicate, like the phantom limb a character complains about: "Just because it's gone doesn't mean it's not there."
"Bengal Tiger" toys with fascinating concepts and conceits, and it's heartening to see an American work about Iraq that avoids docudrama. But Joseph, whose "Gruesome Playground Injuries" recently ran off-Broadway, gets bogged down in drawn-out exchanges and relies on profanity to score easy points. A cheap shortcut undermines each thoughtful parallel.
Worse, the production by Moisés Kaufman ("I Am My Own Wife") fails to exploit the script's supernatural components -- it emphasizes the weaknesses in Joseph's writing without making the most of its strengths.
If a show ever needed a tiger in its tank, it's this one.
An exotic beast is stalking Broadway. No, I’m not referring specifically to the man-eating title character played by Robin Williams in “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.” I’m talking about the play itself: Rajiv Joseph’s smart, savagely funny and visionary new work of American theater, whose presence on Broadway invites fanciful comparison to the titular beast. A Pulitzer Prize finalist last year, “Bengal Tiger” is like a majestic cat serenely striding through a litter of cute-as-can-be kittens ready for their YouTube close-ups.
“Bengal Tiger,” which opened Thursday night at the Richard Rodgers Theater, asks us to think and feel like adults, absorbing the dark absurdities in Mr. Joseph’s microcosmic vision of the chaos that reigned in Baghdad shortly after the invasion of Iraq. Its quiet urge to attend to the moral problems that beset our world — not to mention the existential mysteries man has pondered for centuries — stands in stark contrast to the more prevalent invitations blaring from Broadway marquees: to be serenaded by sweet nostalgia or to Facebook-friend our inner teenager.
The production, directed with gorgeous finesse by Moisés Kaufman (“I Am My Own Wife,” “33 Variations”), does make a standard concession to the celebrity-centric economy of today’s theater by headlining a box-office name. (The rest of the terrific cast comes from Mr. Kaufman’s Los Angeles production, which I saw last spring.) But Mr. Williams, the kinetic comic who has sometimes revealed a marshmallowy streak in movies, never indulges the audience’s hunger for displays of humorous invention or pinpricks of poignancy. He gives a performance of focused intelligence and integrity, embodying the animal who becomes the play’s questioning conscience with a savage bite that never loosens its grip.
And, oh yes, Mr. Williams is quite funny too. He is after all playing a tiger with a foul mouth and a disposition to match, who’s been locked up in the Baghdad zoo for years and is growling as loudly as his stomach when the play opens. (Mr. Williams doesn’t wear a Tigger costume, only a grizzled beard and unkempt hair suggest an animal.) I should emphasize that “Bengal Tiger” is not a civics lesson kind of play to be dutifully attended like a cultural homework assignment. Man and beast, and man turned beast, are depicted throughout with a fanciful humor that still allows for clear-eyed compassion.
The American invasion of 2003 has just taken place, and Baghdad is riven by conflict and confusion. Two soldiers guarding the tiger’s cage — the cocky Kev (Brad Fleischer) and the business-minded Tom (Glenn Davis) — are killing time by swapping stories of their wartime experience. The tiger does some trash-talking himself, gloating over the stupidity of the lions, who fled their habitat only to be mowed down by artillery.
The juvenile Kev, played to dopey perfection by Mr. Fleischer, alternately gripes and makes absurd boasts about the prowess he is yet to prove. He seems to think that warfare is just a cool video game, and the other guys are hogging the Xbox. Tom, imbued with forceful gravity by Mr. Davis, was present when the American troops reached the palace of Uday and Qusay Hussein, Saddam’s sons. His spoils from the looting that took place: a gold-plated toilet seat and a matching handgun that he’s stashed in his knapsack.
This gleaming weapon, sowing mayhem as it moves from hand to hand, is a potent symbol of both corrupting greed and the brutality it can engender. A vulgar talisman of the rapacious Hussein regime, it also becomes a trophy sought after — possibly even killed for — by an American soldier intent on getting what he can out of the war. (Draw your own conclusions about the larger American imperatives in Iraq.)
The golden gun’s first victim is the hapless tiger. As the awed and envious Kev marvels at this spectacular bit of bling, Tom makes the mistake of offering a snack to the beast in the cage, with results that leave him without a hand and the tiger with a gut full of lead. “I get so stupid when I get hungry,” the tiger groans in self-disgust.
And yet death proves oddly congenial to this grumpy beast, who spends his time in the afterlife haunting the soldier who caused his death while pondering the mysteries his ongoing consciousness presents.
“It’s alarming, this life after death,” he confides. “The fact is, tigers are atheists. All of us. Unabashed. Heaven and hell? Those are just metaphorical constructs that represent ‘hungry’ and ‘not hungry.’ Which is to say, why am I still kicking around?” Suddenly this creature of dumb instinct begins acquiring a moral sense and with it the burning desire to know how the afterlife can exist without God, and how God can ignore the unruly garden of corruption that his world has become.
Such questions are tendered by Mr. Williams’s gruff tiger in an offhand, conversational tone that considerably lightens their weightiness. (The exception perhaps is a late speech decrying God’s indifference in overly bald terms.) Similarly, Mr. Joseph’s play to its credit does not aspire to make overarching and obvious statements about the morality of warfare. It is more deeply concerned with the facts on the ground, namely how the baser instincts of human beings inevitably come to the fore in an atmosphere tense with the threat of violence.
Kev’s hair-trigger anxiety and psychological fragility exemplify one potentially disastrous outcome. The bitterness and deadened humanity that Tom exhibits when he returns to Iraq after acquiring an artificial hand is another. And the play’s most movingly drawn character, the soldiers’ translator, Musa (played with soulful intensity by Arian Moayed), becomes perhaps the most heart-rending victim of the viral contagion of violence that the play depicts.
He is haunted by the ghost of Uday Hussein (a vivid, hilariously malevolent Hrach Titizian), who had employed him as a gardener to tend the exotic zoo of topiary animals on the palace grounds. Musa’s journey from friendly helper fascinated by the arcana of American lingo (a very funny scene dissects the meanings of the word “bitch”) to disturbed opportunist represents the most painful illustration of how the appetite for destruction that man shares with predatory beasts is unloosed when the structures of civilization suddenly fall away.
The mosaic of escalating violence depicted in the play takes place against a background of almost breathtaking beauty, in the elegant sets designed by Derek McLane, among his most poetic and effective work. The equally fine lighting design of David Lander blends velvety shadows with rich colors evoking the ravaged beauty of a once-great city.
It is an atmosphere inhabited by the play’s end almost entirely by ghosts. The ricocheting violence unleashed by the legacy of the Hussein regime and the American invasion that sought to end it has claimed victims both malign and innocent.
And yet “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” for all the killing and suffering it contains, is buoyed by the vitality of its imaginative scope. Violence is not after all the only human activity that can have far-reaching, unforeseen effects, shaping lives far into the future. Mr. Joseph’s richly conceived play reminds us that art can have a powerful afterlife too.
In Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo (* * *½ out of four), a wild animal must experience life in a cage before he can fully understand the laws of the jungle.
This is not a metaphorical scenario, entirely. The titular character in Rajiv Joseph's stirring play, which opened Thursday at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, is indeed a tiger, living in captivity in Iraq's capital during the outbreak of the current war. Mind you, he wears clothes, walks upright and talks — philosophizes, even.
In the first scene, before he attacks one American soldier and is shot dead by another, Tiger is given to profanity-laden rants about his cruel fate. After that, he becomes a ghost, given to profanity-laden rants about the elusiveness of justice, meaning and God.
The big cat is played, incidentally, by Robin Williams, who could likely do some very funny feline shenanigans if that's what the role called for.
It isn't. Tiger interacts with people, particularly in the afterlife — haunting his murderer, consoling a little girl's spirit and, most frequently, addressing the audience. And Williams instills in him a very human sense of irony, and empathy; like the other characters, his beast is grappling with inner demons and harsh circumstance, and not making much progress.
Those characters include the aforementioned servicemen: Tiger's killer, Kev, a youth whose brutish bravado doesn't mask his insecurity and fear, and Tom, who seems more grounded at first but unravels later. Their translator, Musa — the Americans call him "Habib" — is an amiable but anxious Iraqi with secrets of his own.
There are other ghosts as well, among them Uday Hussein, Saddam's famously torture-happy son, and Hadia, Musa's teenage sister, whose savage death is his most painful reminder of a life left behind.
Through these disparate people Joseph examines not just the brutality of war but its fundamental sources: lack of communication (some of the dialogue is in Arabic), clashing perspectives and desires. The playwright also addresses, principally through Tiger, the difficulty of faith in a conflict-prone world; there's a lot of grousing about the Almighty's unfair rules and insufficient presence.
All this is handled with a sense of humor and compassion that makes the horrors being documented more tolerable. The cast, under Moises Kaufman's sensitive but vigorous direction, sheds light on each character's private turmoil — even that of Uday's ghost, played with darkly funny flamboyance by Hrach Titizian.
Arian Moayed's tender Musa is, needless to say, more endearing, but complicated enough to become a worthy sparring partner for both Uday and the Americans. Brad Fleischer's Kev deflects our scorn, revealing more thought and feeling as the play progresses; conversely, Glenn Davis' robust Tom challenges our sympathy but never loses it.
Sheila Vand and Necar Zadegan play several Iraqi women, who usually speak in Arabic but can nonetheless convey as much emotion as the talkative Tiger.
It's not often that you hear voices like these on a Broadway stage, and Bengal Tiger gives them vivid, compelling life.