Zoos are an early casualty in cities under siege, a source of chaos Rajiv Joseph exploits in his ambitious “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” a Kirk Douglas Theater world premiere. Though set amid the throes of the 2003 U.S. incursion, it’s less an Iraq War play than a heavily metaphorical musing on life’s purpose in a godless universe. Despite considerable incident and bloodspilling, play’s predisposition to philosophize at the drop of a helmet inspires more intellectual curiosity than emotional involvement.
Explicit war commentary comes through clearly in the opening sequence, based upon a real-life incident. Newcomer Kev (Brad Fleischer) and savvy in-country vet Tom (Glenn Davis) boast and bicker as they nervously risk their lives protecting the zoo our bombs initially decimated.
What they hear as roars, we attend as the complaints of the caged titular beast (Kevin Tighe), who bites off Tom’s hand proffering a Slim Jim and earns Kev’s lethal bullet for his pains.
Whether the tiger, resembling a grizzled yet strangely dapper old prospector, represents America’s inchoate global appetite (“You get hungry, you get stupid, you get shot and die”) or Iraq itself, he rises from the dead to haunt his killer and look into his own soul: “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?”
Action shifts to our central character, Musa (Arian Moayed), erstwhile Hussein family topiary artist now serving as translator to the “liberators.” Nauseated by the patrolling and pimping duties to which he’s assigned, Musa, too, is haunted by ghosts — that of his innocent little sister (Sheila Vand) and her despoiler, Saddam’s pride and joy, bloodthirsty Uday himself (Hrach Titizian).
The noted butcher carries around brother Qusay’s severed head in the afterlife, to egg Musa on to more mischief.
In its effects “Bengal Tiger” becomes a cousin of Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire,” specifically that film’s mesmerizing (or maddening, depending on your point of view) magical-realism take on dour Berlin.
Joseph’s ghosts, like Wenders’ angels, develop preternatural wisdom and sensitivity to human suffering, though the metaphysical rules permit only limited engagement with the living. The dead — like the audience — can only passively observe men coming to the despairing realization of God’s muteness or absence in human affairs.
Helmer Moises Kaufman’s splendid cast works hard to apply the kiss of life to Joseph’s garrulous existential inquiry — too hard at times: Unmodulated shouting from the gifted Fleischer and Davis, and unmodulated thuggery from Titizian, diminish their characters’ potential complexity. Moayed comes off most empathetically as we track his artist’s grace across time and memory, albeit to a predictably bleak end.
Kaufman has ringmastered an absolutely smashing physical and aural environment. Derek McLane’s ingenious unit set and David Lander’s dazzling light plot convey a wide range of moods and locales both interior and exterior, most impressively a woeful garden whose sculpted hedge animals’ remains attest to their once-regal beauty. And Cricket S. Myers masterfully integrates an array of sound effects with Kathryn Bostic’s haunting snatches of melody.
The recipient of NEA honors already, “Bengal Tiger” still requires dramaturgical polish. Kev’s lengthy, overwrought interrogation of Iraqi citizens over a chest’s contents lacks payoff (he just opens the box, which he could have done right from the start); ditto Tom’s even longer negotiation over his desired ficky-ficky method, unnecessary since he ends up showing the prostitute (Vand) what he wants anyway.
The strongly improvisatory nature of such scenes suggests Joseph would do well to remember improv’s first rule: Always go for agreement. His sequences too often bog down in balking and refusal as a time-wasting prelude to forward action. Even characters trapped in the most life-and-death conflict can be written to say “yes,” or simply not say “no.”
Bringing that facility to bear could invest these interactions in unhappy Baghdad with dramatic intensity to match the intense interest in humanity Joseph already possesses.