Here’s a vision more startling to see on a Broadway stage than Banquo’s ghost — a play, narrated by a dead tiger, bristling with anger about the American military occupation of Iraq. Auds drawn by the stellar presence of Robin Williams as the title cat in “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” might wonder what they’re in for at the start of Rajiv Joseph’s metaphysical drama about the tragi-comic consequences of war. But there’ll be no walkouts once thesp sinks his teeth into play’s cosmic questions about the existence of God and the nature of man and beast. Go, Tiger!
Tiger (Williams, in a phenomenal Broadway perf) may be a dramatic metaphor, but he is one magnificent beast and this odd, enchanting play — which was a Pulitzer finalist last year — owes much of its magic to his lordly presence.
Standing upright in his battered cage in the Baghdad Zoo and speaking excellent if earthy English, this grizzled old beast clad in manmade rags has little of the jungle left in him. Except for that rash moment when he bites off the hand of an American Marine on guard at the zoo.
“I get so stupid when I get hungry,” Tiger laments, after another Marine has shot and killed him. But, as his ghost keeps reminding us, in Williams’ sweetly quizzical tones, he is, after all, an animal.
Once Tiger discovers that death confers infinite knowledge, this former confirmed atheist makes his way to what he believes is the Garden of Eden — in reality, the ruined topiary garden of a burned-out mansion (a marvelously eerie place in Derek McLane’s design) — to confront his newly acknowledged creator.
“What kind of twisted bastard creates a predator and then punishes him for preying?” he demands of the unseen God who made him, stating the existential question at the heart of the play.
In one way or another, all of the characters who live in this play face the same sobering dilemma of man’s animal nature, especially those who have become philosophical in the afterlife.
Tom (the very model of a military recruitment poster, in Glenn Davis’s strong perf) lives and dies in the all-American spirit of greed. But Kev (quality work from Brad Fleischer), the awesomely stupid and bloodthirsty Marine who killed Tiger, becomes fluid in Arabic and understanding of people he once terrorized. And Musa, a man of many parts in Arian Moayed’s sensitive perf, the Marines’ Iraqi translator (and the artist who created the topiary garden), despairs of his own humanity once he meets the ghost of his former patron, Uday Hussein (a chilling Hrach Titizian).
Writing in the imaginative and utterly unconventional manner that defines his indefinable work and identifies him as a major player, Joseph (“Gruesome Playground Injuries”) hurls question after existential question at his floundering characters: What makes a man a man and not a beast? Do we lose our humanity when we kill? And where is God in all of this?
Even Tiger, who takes pride in his own superior intelligence and faces such questions fearlessly (“Use your head!” he keeps taunting smaller minds), is confounded by human behavior in wartime.
While scribe doesn’t apologize for his own intelligence, he doesn’t quite trust the dramatic strength of his ideas, overdrawing characters like the dumb and greedy soldiers and over-writing action scenes. If helmer Moises Kaufman over-indulges certain of these writerly excesses, he compensates with a quite wonderful production that honors the terrible mystery of being human. Or, in Tiger’s case, more than human.