"Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, March 27, 2011
Rajiv Joseph is having a terrific season in New York. His Gruesome Playground Injuries recently ended an Off-Broadway run at 2nd Stage. Now Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo gets a production on Broadway starring no less than Robin Williams. Mr. Joseph's effort here is better, in this story of a tiger killed by a US Marine in the Baghdad Zoo during the occupation in 2003. Bengal Tiger... offers a stronger premise and better construction as the existential Tiger (Mr. Williams) shares a cat's-eye view of the absurdities of war and God. Even with the improved structure, Mr. Joseph maintains his penchant for the bloody and violent.
Once dead, the Tiger haunts the young Marine, Kev (Brad Fleischer)who shot him when he attacked and bit off the hand of his buddy, Tom (Glenn Davis), who was sharing guard duty of the cage and provoked the attack. Tom was part of the patrol that caught and killed Uday Hussein (Hrach Titizian)and looted a gold-plated pistol and gold toilet seat from the palace. Kev retains the pistol as Tom is shipped back to the US for treatment.
Accompanied on a night raid by Musa (Arian Moayed), Uday's former gardener, now working for the military as a translator, Kev freaks out when the Tiger's ghost shows up and starts talking to Kev. Kev collapses and ends up in the psych ward on suicide watch. Each character spirals out of control as the pressure of war and need for escape seem more and more impossible, almost all ending up dead by the end of the play. There's also a subplot about how Uday and his brother Qusay tortured and murdered Musa's younger sister.
Director Moises Kaufman handles the material capably, but certainly has his hands full in trying to manage the enigmatic Mr. Williams. I remember seeing an interview with Mr. Kaufman, where he discussed the importance of focusing on the text as the way to explore and discover the characters and the play. It was apparent, painfully at times, that Mr. Williams' performance style, full of riffs and ad libs, was heavily restrained for total commitment to the script. As a result, Mr. Williams is miscast. His monologues work better than the scenes where one can sense him wanting to take off and run with an idea, then seeing him physically stop himself. Listening to the text, I kept thinking that Jack Nicholson would have made a better Tiger in this production.
Mr. Kaufman has mixed success in the performances he elicits from the rest of the cast, dependent on Mr. Joseph's unevenly drawn characters. Mr. Moayed's Musa gets the most to work with and is the most successful. There are a couple of chilling scenes with Uday that replay the events of his sister's death. Mr. Titizian's ghost of Uday is a viciously hateful villain. He enters carrying his Qusay's head in a plastic bag and torments Musa extensively from beyond the grave.
Mr. Joseph does create an interesting plot device in Musa, setting several scenes in a ruined topiary garden he created for Uday. The Tiger comes across it, finding it a paradox that men would put animals in a cage, the create them again out of shrubs to sit unguarded and unrestrained. It was in the same garden that Musa's innocent sister was destroyed by the animals Uday and Qusay, and now the garden is destroyed by the war. It prompts one the Tiger's existential monologues about war and how God could let such horror occur - thought-provoking stuff.
Derek McLane's sets suggest the various locations effectively, complemented by David Lander's lighting.
Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is on a limited run through July 3.