Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 31, 2011
Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo by Rajiv Joseph. Directed by Moisés Kaufman. Scenic design by Derek McLane. Costume design by David Zinn. Lighting design by David Lander. Sound design by Acme Sound Partners and Cricket S. Myers. Music by Kathryn Bostic. Cast: Robin Williams, with Glenn Davis, Brad Fleischer, Hrach Titizian, Sheila Vand, Necar Zadegan, and Arian Moayed, Hen Ayoub, Corey Brill, Daoud Heidami, Sherman Howard.
Not that the comedian-turned-actor is poor casting in theory. After all, this is not your typical tiger, merely stalking and eating other animals (or parts of them) alive. He does those things, to be sure, but he also muses at length about life’s and death’s most vexing existential conundrums — Is there a God? If so, why has He abandoned us? Are Heaven and Hell only “metaphorical constructs”? — in a series of bitterly funny monologues that would seem well in keeping with both Williams’s own “real world, rambunctiously re-examined” comic style and his staunchly reflective Serious Actor persona (for which he won an Oscar for Good Will Hunting). Williams satisfies these requirements, but he does not go much further.
The tiger may be, well, a tiger, and one that prowls through most of the play and his most insightful revelations after he dies (shot by a soldier whose friend’s hand the tiger instinctively eats). But he’s also the most human figure we meet, the only one willing to confront the darkest questions about both the early days of the Iraq War and mankind’s propensity to internal and interpersonal violence alike.
Williams, who’s making his Broadway acting debut, does not want for stage presence. (This is, after all, the man who once took over the Metropolitan Opera for an act.) Every time he appears, whether on the edges of the burning Baghdad or essentially amid the flames, he conjures a comfortably antagonistic ease that is just right for a prowling creature about ready to strike. But the bloodletting never comes. Williams’s tiger is one that more convincingly escaped from a traveling circus than was stolen from the jungle: entertainment-minded, more about surface brightness than depth. As a result, Williams does not project humanity sufficient to fill the theater, only riding high on the tiger’s most toothsome one-liners. This character, a prophet in feline form, because little more than jester stringing along his jokes with a bit of mumbling.
As the link between to play’s earthbound problems and their more cosmic repercussions, the tiger is crucial; and without one that’s equal parts titanic and terrifying, you’re not seeing this work at its fullest. The good news is that the rest of Moisés Kaufman’s production of Joseph’s play, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist last year (when the award was won by Next to Normal), is a near-total success. Powerful and provocative without directly preaching, it’s also Joseph’s most mature and polished work to date, suggesting for the first time a great artist was hiding within the good one responsible for smaller-scale and smaller-thinking works like Animals Out of Paper, All This Intimacy, Huck & Holden, and Gruesome Playground Injuries (which played at Second Stage earlier this season).
As the living and the dead intermingle (Hrach Titizian plays Uday, who returns from the dead to torment Musa anew), they establish the backbone of a culture fueled as much by fear as by fact, and of a place where no one is entirely innocent. Joseph deftly spins his story through history, through imagination, and eventually through the literal desert, showing that all are equally barren when it comes to explaining how and why people let their souls darken in the face of adversity. Kaufman, who directed largely this same cast (minus Williams) in the play’s premiere production in Los Angeles in 2009 and its restaging a year later, guides the show with abrasiveness and elegance. You see this particularly embodied in Derek McLane’s opulent set, which highlights the legendary art and despair of the region (a number of topiary animals factor prominently), suggesting the forces that have for millennia struggled for supremacy in the cradle of the world.
The actors are every bit as energizing with their portrayals. Davis, as the hard-as-nails and thick-skinned man who wants the piece he believes he’s entitled to, brings compelling, nuanced life to the surprisingly tragic figure of the military Everyman. Fleischer slides easily from dumb by nature to dumbfounded by the nature of the universe, creating a moving vision of exactly what killing can do to the perpetrator’s mind. Titizian is cunningly cruel as Uday; but Moayed is sharper and scarier still in charting Musa’s even grander journey from victim to victor and back again, as he learns that gaining power is never a guarantee that you’ll be able — or even inclined — to use it correctly.
Throughout it all, however, the tiger must pad around the periphery of everyone’s consciousness, the living-dead symbol of the guilt they can never fully escape. But Williams pounces only when the spotlight is centered on his unparalleled way with a wisecrack; when embodying the keenest onlooker of human entropy, his roar diminishes into a purr. He can’t stop us from assimilating the most potent messages of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, but neither does he prove that, like the tiger and those he encounters before and after his demise, we too are forever lodged in the grip of the evils we have unwittingly created for ourselves.