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Guards at the Taj

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Omar Metwally and Arian Moayed
Photo by Doug Hamilton

As are many things, beauty is deceptive: You only ever see the finished product, not the interminable amounts of time, heartbreak, and/or failure that went into ensuring it. But whether the end result is a supermodel, the Grand Canyon, or a glorious building, that process is always there, and brings along with it a unique collection of baggage, ghosts, and stories. Rajiv Joseph taps into all of these with his engaging but unsteady new play at the Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater, Guards at the Taj, which investigates just such a backstory with one of the world's most celebrated and revered structures, the Taj Mahal.

But the two men on which the play focuses, Humayun (Omar Metwally) and Babur (Arian Moayed), do not have the loftiest of vantage points from which to assess it. They are instead, as the title suggests, charged with safeguarding the final stages of the construction before the Taj Mahal is revealed to the public as the apotheosis of human ingenuity to that point. They are not to move, not to speak, and not even to look at the project as it unfolds behind them, but see that the building remains complete and unsullied before time begins to inflict its eternal ravages.

It's an impossible expectation, not least for these childhood friends who are used to sharing everything, and one that inspires the ceaseless fantasizing and speculation on what it all means and why. And for much of the first half hour, that seems to be where we're headed, with the men's version of workplace gossip and daydreaming rendered with a clipped language and lazy vernacular more befitting 2015 than the specified setting of 1648.

"My father yearns for defeat," Humayan says. "Always has. You know him."

Babur replies, "Sons are sons. Fathers are fathers. And one day you'll be Chief Top Boss Man of the Imperial Guard, just like him."

As smoothly directed by Amy Morton (best known for her Tony-nominated performances in August: Osage County and the 2012 revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), and acted with a genial, fraternal ease by Metwally and Moayed, the first scene zips by as a clever yet ominous meditation on the nature of creation that culminates in a moment of serene theatrical poetry when the Taj Mahal is finally revealed. Lighting designer David Weiner works particular magic here, equating the unveiling with the effusive sunrise it accompanies, but the wonder that washes over Humayun and Babur's faces is, if anything, more captivating: an impression that they are staring into the eyes of God Himself.

We learn just how earthbound they really are in the scenes that follow, which explore the price associated with the invaluable monument, as it affects both the broader world and the individuals within it. Morton keeps pace well, applying a firm pressure on the flimsy-seeming atmosphere to let us see just the weight it can bear. Scenic designer Timothy R. Mackabee isn't afraid to plumb the nightmarish depths hidden within the Taj Mahal's shadow, transforming his nondescript but evocative rock wall into something more naturalistically terrifying (Bobby Frederick Tilley II's costumes undergo a similar shift); and Metwally and Moayed appropriately amp up the terror as their characters discover the ways they'll have to atone for their sins. This keeps the last section of the play correctly nail-biting, a jolting return to reality after the fairy-taleĀ–like introduction.

Joseph, however, has more difficulty modulating his writing. By starting off so lightly, not just in terms of his characterizations but in terms of the presentation, Joseph doesn't have the authority he needs to push things into more serious areas later. Transforming paper-thin caricatures into temporary poets is one thing; expecting those same people to be able to bear the burden of centuries of violent history, and to see each other as enemies when that's what their continued existence grows to require, is something else altogether, and not something that echoes convincingly once it arrives.

There's a sobering brutality in the way the two men grow, first together and later apart, that should resolve into a suffocating tragedy for them and for us. Metwally and Moayed leave no room for argument on their end: They craft deft portrayals of these people as being the victims of the events that surround them, and don't let us forget where they are on the food chain. Metwally's uncompromising realist and Moayed's gleaming optimist are exactly what the parts require, and the actors share a hearty chemistry that immediately establishes the duo's powerful bond.

That Humayun and Babur don't get there naturally is to some measure the point: There's value in witnessing how average people are set upon by extraordinary circumstances and thus forced to either rise to the challenge or crumple beneath it. But for their ultimate fates to have the intended devastating impact, their evolution must be within an observable and consistent realm that lets us understand exactly why they're earned. Traveling to Oedipus from Seinfeld is, perhaps, not an impossible journey, but it's not one Joseph makes successfully in Guards at the Taj.

Guards at the Taj
Through June 28
Atlantic Theater Company at The Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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