Rajiv Joseph's script for "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" has a special request about the actor playing the title character.
"The Tiger can be any age, although ideally, he is older, scrappy, past his prime, yet still tough," Joseph says. "His language is loose, casual, his profanity is second nature."
Did somebody say Robin Williams?
Joseph may be a gifted young playwright but he has pretty much hit the jackpot by landing the 59-year-old Williams, who stalks this fascinating, ambitious play about war as a restless tiger's ghost in human clothing, all bushy-bearded and sarcastic.
That turns out to be a double-edged sword. Williams' star wattage threatens to overpower the play as he itches for a fight, snarls and explosively swears. It's almost too perfect a vehicle for the actor-comedian: You can almost hear Williams' staccato delivery in every line of the script.
"Why me? Why here? Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. It doesn't seem fair," says the tiger. "A dead cat consigned to this burning city doesn't seem just. But here I am. Dante in Hades. A Bengal tiger in Baghdad."
Joseph's play, which opened Thursday at the Richard Rogers Theatre, starts with dramatization of a real-life incident in which a U.S. soldier shot and killed a tiger in Baghdad in 2003 after it bit another soldier who had reached through the bars of its cage to feed it.
The play then takes a metaphysical turn, with the dead tiger's spirit wandering the battle-scarred streets of the city, trapped in a sort of limbo, as the play opens up to explore life and death, the reverberations of violence, cultural miscommunication, post-traumatic stress, nationalism and invasion. It is a play that seems both big and small at the same time.
A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for drama, it is a dark and yet funny play that keeps going in unexpected places. Though parts of it may reach too far, or seem contrived or leave too much unexplained, Joseph has written a brave, bold, ambitious work from which you cannot turn away — and stays with you long after the big cat has disappeared.
The tiger is the connective tissue that joins the play's other main characters: The dimwitted soldier who killed him (Brad Fleischer); the soldier (Glenn Davis) who loses his hand when bitten and who has stolen a silver-plated gun and golden toilet seat owned by Saddam Hussein's son Uday; the taunting ghost of Uday himself (Hrach Titizian), who carries about the decapitated head of his brother, Qusay; and the soldiers' Iraqi translator (Arian Moayed), a gardener in civilian life who has suffered horrific tragedy at the hands of Uday.
The range of emotions Moayed conveys over the course of the play is stunning, while Titizian is nightmarishly good as the murderous Hussein. Williams sinks his teeth into his meaty part, sometimes bending the script to serve his voice, not the other way around.
The use of the tiger is a fascinating device to carve a neutral space between the Americans and the Iraqis, who cannot seem to bridge their cultural and linguistic barriers regardless of how much translation is used. (The script calls for several lines spoken in Arabic.)
Moises Kaufman directs the play with both an intimacy that makes watching a two-person scene feel like an intrusion and with broad, blunt allegories. He has kept the existentialist humor and also the tension, particularly in one loud, chaotic scene as a soldier bursts into a civilian home with his gun drawn. One sex scene that is a little discordant amid the big themes in the play is nevertheless rendered both sad and funny.
The script also calls for a ruined garden amid the desert — a reference to the Garden of Eden? Or man's foolish attempt to control nature? Set designer Derek McLane presents haunting topiaries of a giraffe, horse and elephant. The hubbub of Baghdad streets and overlapping calls to prayer seep from the production courtesy of Cricket S. Myers and Acme Sound Partners.
Like the tiger, the playwright has bitten off a lot: How violence echoes. Brutality in this play lingers and infects others. The tiger's single, toothy lunge turns a soldier into a gun-waiving thief, his protector into a suicide victim and a mild-mannered gardener into a murderer. Even the tiger's carnivorous past haunts him.
"What if my every meal has been an act of cruelty? What if my very nature is in direct conflict with the moral code of the universe?" the tiger asks. "That would make me a fairly damned individual."
He can join the club: Bloodshed, at the end, seems all that connects this group of lost, broken souls.