Postcard from Broadway: ‘Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo’

By Elizabeth Maupin
Elizabeth Maupin on Theater

Robin Williams in 'Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.' Photo by Carol Rosegg.

As long as storytellers have existed, they have told us that war is hell.

But few have told us from such a remarkable perspective as Rajiv Joseph, the playwright whose darkly comic drama Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo depicts war through the eyes of a majestic but dead tiger played by Robin Williams, along with an Iraqi gardener, two American soldiers and the playboy psychopath Uday Hussein.

In Bengal Tiger, a finalist for this year’s Pulitzer Prize, the Ohio-born-and-bred Joseph draws an otherworldly Baghdad, in which the ghosts of the dead wander the streets and the only motivations seem to be guns and fear and a gold toilet seat.

Robin Williams as the Tiger, Brad Fleischer as Kev and Glenn Davis as Tommy. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The toilet seat belonged to Uday, Saddam Hussein’s lunatic son. But it is Uday’s gold handgun that dispatches the lordly, starving tiger, which has torn off the hand of one of the American soldiers. And it is that tiger – played by Williams with regal and sardonic ferocity – that begins to ask the questions that demand to be asked: Why am I here? What is God? And if there is a God, why is there war?

Killing breeds killing in this Baghdad, where the two soldiers, Kev and Tommy, are only pawns in a war they don’t begin to understand. Tommy (Glenn Davis) is just a little bit more capable; Kev (the excellent Brad Fleischer) is full of bravado but scared to death. “Everything I see every day is just whack, you know,” he whimpers.

As directed by Moisés Kaufman (The Laramie Project, I Am My Own Wife), Bengal Tiger is filled with menace and casual cruelty: The soldiers point their guns directly at the audience, at close range, and Uday (well, the ghost of Uday) talks to the bloody head of his brother Qusay, which he carries around in a plastic bag.

Brad Fleischer as Kev and Arian Moayed as Musa. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The humor, from Williams and the others, is of the blackest sort. And in an environment like this one, any sense of conscience comes from the ghosts – who become considerably more insightful once they’re dead – and from Musa (the immensely moving Arian Moayed), an Iraqi gardener who struggles, with the tiger, to make sense of all he has seen.

There is no making sense of war, of course, and Joseph’s play will leave you profoundly shaken.

“I’m not like you all,” Musa says to the cynical ghost of Uday (Hrach Titizian), his former employer. “This is not who I am.”

But in this uneasy ruin of a city, just who the survivors are, and who they will be, is far from sure.

‘Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo’
By Rajiv Joseph
Where: Richard Rodgers Theater, 226 W. 46th St., New York City.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, through July 3.
Running time: Two hours, with one intermission.
Cost: $74.75-$134.75.
Call: 877-250-2929.

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