11 June 2011

'Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo'

[I should confess that though I saw Rajiv Joseph’s Bengal Tiger some months ago, I delayed publishing a report on the performance for several reasons. The first, which was beyond my control, was a computer crash which denied me access not just to the Internet (and, consequently, ROT), but also my wordprocessor. The second problem, entirely in my control, was that I simply didn’t know what to say about the play. Readers may feel that I still don’t—and I won’t debate that. The principal obstacle has been determining what the play is supposed to be about, what Joseph is writing about. I couldn’t figure it out and so I kept putting off writing my performance report. ~Rick]

My mother was in New York for a late-birthday/early-Mother’s Day visit, so we went up to the TKTS booth on Tuesday, 19 April, to see if we could score tix for some worthwhile show. I was armed with a short list of preferences, but we were open to any number of other possibilities that might be available. Among the choices I’d preselected were The Importance of Being Earnest, in which Brian Bedford was playing Lady Bracknell to great acclaim, and Rajiv Joseph’s recently-opened (on 31 March) Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, starring Robin Williams as the Tiger. Both plays were available, so on the strength of several reviews and the recommendation of a friend, plus the description of the show as ground-breaking theater and reports of Williams’s performance as excellent, I chose Joseph’s Broadway début over the golden oldie (which, alas, is one of my very favorite plays of all times). I’d seen Joseph’s last New York outing, Gruesome Playground Injuries at the Second Stage Theatre last February, and though I had been very disappointed in the play, I’d read great reports of the new one, on its way then from L.A. where it had premièred with the same director, Moisés Kaufman, and most of the cast except Williams. (The tiger was played by Kevin Tighe in L.A.) Everyone who’d seen or heard of Bengal Tiger was anxiously waiting for it to open here, so I based my choice on all that anticipation, willing to give Joseph another shot because of what had been written about the young playwright, who’d already had two previous Off-Broadway plays presented here (both also at 2ST) and whose work had been frequently produced in theaters around the country over the past five or so years. (Joseph is currently a writer for the cable series Nurse Jackie.)

Bengal Tiger, a runner-up for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in drama, preemed in Los Angeles two years ago at the Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City before moving to the Mark Taper Forum in downtown L.A. (The drama prize last year was won by the musical Next to Normal.) In the Times review of the Broadway turn, Charles Isherwood compared Bengal Tiger to “a majestic cat serenely striding through a litter of cute-as-can-be kittens” and said it “asks us to think and feel like adults.” (Michael Feingold’s Village Voice review was almost breathless.) That makes it an attractive choice for a theater evening, a grown-up play with serious theatrical credentials, “directed with gorgeous finesse.” On top of that, Pat, the actress-director wife of my friend Kirk, saw the play in March and reported that it was “wild,” with “excellent acting,” including from Williams, who Pat said was “outstanding.” That clinched it for me, so I selected Bengal Tiger over Earnest—but I may have made a misjudgment.

Ordinarily, I don’t use reviews slavishly as my guide to theater choices. First of all, I know better: I used to write them myself on occasion and I know how personal the response of a reviewer is. Second, I have serious problems with Ben Brantley, the principal reviewer for the New York Times, so I habitually set his evaluations aside and read his notices for descriptions of the play and the productions and whatever else I can glean that’s more objective than the quality assessment. I usually have less trouble with Isherwood, with whose opinions I often find myself agreeing, and he wrote the notices for Bengal Tiger—he saw the L.A. staging, too—which he pronounced “visionary.” Furthermore, since I just recently saw Gruesome Playground Injuries, Joseph’s last play (see my report on ROT, 23 February), and had strong reservations about its dramaturgy, I should certainly have had doubts, but the report from Pat, whose judgment I respect, and the overwhelming praise that Bengal Tiger got in advance of its New York appearance encouraged me. Unhappily, the review I should have heeded, from a source I usually dismiss, was Roma Torre’s notice on New York 1, the local news channel of Time Warner Cable TV here in New York. Torre ended the opening to her review by asking: “How did this pretentious work get so far?” Torre, whose credentials as a theater reviewer are dubious (she’s also a general-subjects reporter and news anchor for the station), really nailed the analysis this time.

I’ll come back to this later, but there’s nothing wrong with the performances in the New York incarnation of Bengal Tiger, including Williams’s—though I think too much was made of the role in the press coverage. I have some complaints about Kaufman’s directing, which I’ll get to shortly, but the production’s design, like the acting, is fine. The fundamental problem, however, is entirely and wholly the result of Joseph’s script, and I’m going to dwell on that here rather than the production.

Joseph’s play unfolds from the perspective of a tiger in the Baghdad Zoo, played here by Williams, being guarded by two Marines. Williams isn’t costumed in anything reminiscent of Tony the Tiger or even Cats; his only “fur” is a full gray-streaked beard. (The Voice ran a drawing with Feingold’s review depicting Williams’s beard with tiger stripes.) The plot follows the two Marines, the tiger, and Musa, an Iraqi man who serves as the American unit’s translator, as they negotiate the aftermath of the war in Iraq in 2003, the first year of the U.S. invasion. In the first scene, the two GI’s—the cocky and as-yet untested Kev and the quieter, more combat-experienced Tom—banter about their experiences in the war, the tiger they guard from marauders, and what they’ve witnessed so far. Kev brags about the feats he’ll perform when he sees combat, and Tom confesses that he was one of the raiders who sacked Uday Hussein’s palace, where everything was made of gold, including the toilet seats—one of which the GI looted and has hidden somewhere for later retrieval—and a gold-plated pistol he carries in his knapsack. The impetuous and puerile Kev persuades Tom to show him the trophy, and while he’s wielding it, Tom ventures too close to the tiger’s cage and is mauled, prompting Kev to shoot the cat, killing him. For the rest of the play, the tiger is a ghost beast, wandering the chaotic city as the two Marines try to retrieve the buried golden toilet seat and the golden gun that changes hands like the Maltese falcon. I won’t detail the incidents that befall the characters on their increasingly desperate journey to recover the looted riches, but I will add that the tiger gets to meander through the city commenting on the events like a feline Jimminy Cricket. It seems that Joseph wants us to understand that death, apparently not quite the end of existence (there are other ghosts, including animals, a little girl, and a still-arrogant Uday Hussein), renders the recently deceased wise and clear-sighted—not to mention rhetorically enigmatic. (Calling the Ghost Whisperer!)

For the moment, let me just quote NY1’s Torre: “There is a case to be made for such a provocative conceit. But Joseph only seems capable of raising profound questions. There's little here in terms of insight or understanding. And his storytelling is disjointed.” When my mother turned to me, first at intermission and then at the end, to ask what it had all meant (I deferred my answer at intermission), I couldn’t help her much, but I should have cited Torre. Joseph has stated that he’s interested in “how primal forces like longing, or desire or a hunger for faith can take us to wild places,” which was the philosophical basis for GPI and I take it that the playwright’s exploring the same theme here only in a more fraught circumstance with more deadly consequences. (At the risk of giving too much away, I’ll reveal that by the end of the play, most of the characters have died violently.) So we see that in a drive for glory, wealth, and survival, Joseph’s characters, especially the Marines, venture more and more deeply into dangerous circumstances and actions. Well, isn’t that news! Soldiers and survivors in war and in the aftermath of war engage in extreme behavior. (Let’s not even get into the fact that the extreme acts in which the characters in Bengal Tiger engage are war crimes: theft and murder.) Can that over-obvious lesson be what Joseph is writing about? (When I was going through the officers’ basic course in the army back in 1969, a point one instructor made was that combat increases all a soldier’s appetites: the desires for comfort, food, drink, gambling, sex, and risk. If the army was telling us that over 40 years ago, it can’t be much of a revelation today.) This all reminds me of a well-known slogan from the ‘60s anti-war movement: “War is not healthy for children or other living things”—which was as obvious a statement then as it is now.

Most of the reviews offered the same basic interpretation of the play, which Patrick Healy called a morality play in the New York Times: it’s about the depths to which humans can fall under the kinds of pressures that afflict them in a war zone. After all, we saw it in Vietnam, which was a similar combat experience in that the front lines were undefined and the enemy—the threat—was all around and indistinguishable from friends and allies. We’re seeing it in Afghanistan as well. Torre summed the themes up this way: “What's the meaning of life? War is hell. Where is God?” adding, “Round and round it goes . . ., a two hour riff on such existential imponderables.” The obstacle I have is that, aside from being an obvious statement that’s already been made in numerous movies and TV shows (and not a few plays) since the ‘60s, Bengal Tiger doesn’t make that point very clearly or directly and loads the message with symbolism and ambiguous imagery that just wasn’t easy for me to follow. Not only is the main figure of revelation and rationality the ghost of the tiger, a confusing enough image on its own, but the dead Uday Hussein comes and goes as well, and I can’t be sure what he represents. Perhaps it’s over-obvious, but I presume there’s something in the fact that the interlocutor of the play’s themes is a beast who’s become an anthropomorphic philosopher while the human characters are each in thrall to the part of them that’s bestial. The animals who’d been locked in the zoo had all been killed or run off, but the animals in human form still roam the city. But I can’t help feeling that Joseph is trying to say something more by having Tom steal two iconic items from the looted palace, a gun and a toilet seat. Since the Marine makes the point that everything in Uday’s palace was made of gold, why single out those two objects? Violence and biological needs? I guess the gun, aside from being a plot element (it was used first to kill the tiger, after all, and then others), is obvious—greed + violence—but in a war environment, a gold gun has some general significance. But the toilet seat? I suppose it’s just a funny item, but it nags at me that Joseph is saying something, especially since it’s the object of the treasure hunt that propels the rest of the play’s plot. A prosaic object rendered irresistible to greed? Other symbols in the mesh include Uday’s garden where the tiger ends up, landscaped with animal topiary, now drying up and dying for lack of water and care, and Tom’s loss of a hand after which he returns to Baghdad from the States (with a prosthesis and phantom pain) only to die at the hands of Kev in the hunt for the gold toilet seat. These elements of the plot came flying at the audience so fast and with so little context most of the time that I couldn’t sort them out and finally lost track as I tried to keep up with the convoluted story. GPI was plagued with incomplete episodes, lives and characters that started but didn’t conclude. Bengal Tiger has a dramaturgical fault that doubles up on this: the plot elements, episodes that aren’t quite as disconnected as they are in GPI, not only don’t end but don’t really begin, either. They start from nowhere (except maybe in Joseph’s head) and then roil the drama before evaporating unexplained. It seems clear that others either follow Joseph’s thinking—or are pretending to; I couldn’t. Marilyn Stasio called Bengal Tiger a “metaphysical drama” in Variety, but I wonder how well metaphysics works on stage. (In Kushner’s Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide, I saw how poorly political philosophy fares.) The tiger’s philosophical meditations, dotted with profanities, get hard to focus on. The Voice’s Feingold called them “triple-decker speeches,” implying that they communicate (or don’t) on many levels at once, but I found that distracting and confusing. I said I usually dismissed NY1’s reviews: I feel they’re low-brow. Maybe that’s my problem with Bengal Tiger: I’m just not smart enough to get it. Even after trying to suss the meaning of Joseph’s play out, I was unable to.

I have to assume that Kaufman had some idea of what the play should be about, and I guess he directed it to make that point. It has to be a failing that he didn’t communicate it to me, though maybe he made himself clear to everyone else (except, of course, my mother). I also wonder if perhaps Kaufman chose the wrong style for the script. While Joseph’s play can be seen as a basically realistic war story with a moral, it isn’t. Elisabeth Vincentelli of the New York Post described it as a blend of black humor and surrealism, which pretty well capsulizes the writing style. The situations are slightly incongruous (a golden gun, a garden of topiary) and all those ghosts surely lift us above any kind of quotidian actuality. But Kaufman lets Joseph’s narrative and prose poetry do the work of establishing the production’s style, making no attempt to capitalize theatrically on the supernatural aspects of the script. I wonder if maybe he ought to have developed a staging style more in concert with the play Joseph wrote, a kind of North American magical realism, say, instead of one undercutting it.

As I said, the performances are fine. The Tom of Glenn Davis and Kev of Brad Fleischer are appropriately driven and haunted, each in his own individual way. Fleischer’s tightly wound Kev is irrepressibly immature—and reminded me of a young soldier with whom I served in Berlin in the ‘70s who got himself into deep, deep trouble of a different kind for somewhat different reasons; but both are driven by their youth and unchecked urges. Arian Moayed’s Musa, the Marines’ translator and sometime foil, moves from a kind of anguished subservience through confusion and puzzlement to his own driven quest. In fact, despite Williams’s personal stardom and the fact that he’s the title character, Moayed’s Musa, Uday Hussein’s gardener who created the topiary park, is by far the most interesting character in the play and if the script weren’t so diffuse, both Moayed’s character and his performance would be the center of the drama. (Moayed was the subject of a New York Times profile, “From Starry-Eyed to Star” by Melena Ryzik, 2 May.) Other cast members are good to excellent, including the repellent Uday of Hrach Titizian, and the production elements (the two-level set by Derek McLane, the costumes by David Zinn, the lighting by David Lander) are all effective. Robin Williams is restrained and controlled as the sagacious tiger, avoiding the kind of manic (and usually hilarious) performance style that marks his stand-up gigs and his appearances on talk shows like Letterman. (One critic suggested that the role might have been selected to give Williams a respite because of his recent bypass surgery.) I can’t fault his work in the title role of Bengal Tiger, but I’m confounded a little by the fuss made over the part. One typically hyperbolic notice (in the Hollywood Reporter) dubbed Williams’s presentation as “Lenny Bruce meets Friedrich Nietzsche in the body of a man-eating predator,” and Variety’s Stasio called it “phenomenal.” Maybe it’s just that it’s Williams’s Broadway acting début—he’s done comedy performances on Broadway but this is his first play there—but while the actor’s work is more than acceptable, it’s hardly a part worthy of all the hype or congratulatory press he’s gotten. (Williams was conspicuously omitted from the Tony nominations in May.) The tiger comes and goes for a few minutes at each appearance, speaking words of wisdom, and then disappears for large chunks of the play. The character demands no pyrotechnical acting, just strong confidence and honesty, which Williams provides admirably. Aside from the scruffy attire—the tiger’s outfitted in a T-shirt, khakis, and an open vest—with his beard, Williams looks as much like an itinerant rabbi as anything else.

I suppose that my profound confusion suggests that none of the artists did their jobs flawlessly, but I’m loath to blame the actors and director for not untangling the muddle caused by the playwright. In my report on GPI, I quoted one reviewer who asserted that that production was an example of what a good director can make of a flawed play; that I don’t feel that happened with Bengal Tiger is not a reflection on the work of Kaufman or his company. If the wherewithal to make the repairs isn’t in the script somewhere, there’s only so much others can do. I don’t think my mother and I were the only spectators who left the Richard Rodgers Theatre that night without fully appreciating the production. The applause at the end seemed a little unenthusiastic to me—though maybe I’m projecting. What really astonishes me, though, is the press reception I’ve read. Beginning with the reports from L.A. last year, the press seems to have been primed for a dramatic home run. How come so many theater journalists saw something in Bengal Tiger that I missed so completely?


  1. The Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust announced on Tuesday, 10 October 2013, that Rajiv Joseph is one of two recipients of the Steinberg Playwright "Mimi" Awards. (The other winner is Annie Baker, whose work includes 'The Flick,' 'Circle Mirror Transformation,' 'The Aliens,' and 'Body Awareness.') The "Mimi" Awards, which will be held on Monday, 18 November, at Lincoln Center, are presented every other year to honor the accomplishments of emerging American playwrights in the early or middle stages of their careers. Each recipient will be awarded a $50,000 prize.

    Jim Steinberg, a member of the board of the Steinberg Trust, said in a statement: "Both playwrights have produced extremely influential and successful work, which is an extraordinary accomplishment for two such young artists."

  2. Various news outlets have reported that Robin Williams died in an apparent suicide at about noon PDT on Monday, 11 August. He was found unconscious at his Marin County home, according the county sheriff's office. Details are unavailable at this point, but his publicist, Mara Buxbaum, said in a statement that Williams “has been battling severe depression of late,” though she didn't confirm the actor and comedian's death was a suicide.

    As a personal observation, I'd like to say that Williams's appearances in stand-up comedy shows and on Letterman never failed to have me almost literally rolling on the floor with laughter. When Williams did his guest shot as Mork on 'Happy Days,' I nearly dropped my teeth--which, you understand, weren't even false. I said to myself, practically out loud, "This guy's nuts--in a fantastic way! This is wonderful!!" 'Mork & Mindy' never measured up to the promise of that 'Happy Days' pilot appearance, but as silly as that sit-com was, just getting to watch Williams be outrageous week after week kept me coming back.

    Whatever demons he was fighting, I will miss Williams's antic humor in the world. We sorely need that and Robin Williams was better at it than almost anybody else.