The Pulitzer board missed a good bet last year when they passed over Rajiv Joseph’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo (Richard Rodgers Theatre) for the Drama prize. Articulate, ambitious, and powerfully imaginative, Joseph’s play is exactly the kind of American work the award was intended to honor. It has a few small flaws, and one larger structural challenge, at the end, that it doesn’t wholly surmount, but its stature, its daring leaps, and its breadth of empathy put it far ahead of the ordinary run of plays.
Yes, it’s about Iraq. But we’re not exactly out of Iraq yet. Meantime, we’re still in Afghanistan, and busily dabbling our toes in the rest of the Islamic world’s widening quagmire. In any case, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo doesn’t precisely deal with either Iraqi politics or our military effect on them. Its subject might be described as the ongoing phenomenology of American power abroad, its impact on the cultures it collides with and vice versa. Nearly half of its characters are ghosts; on its uppermost level, it deals with God—as a concept to be wrestled with, not an imaginary force to be blindly obeyed or (as in Book of Mormon) glibly kidded.
God, running true to form, is everywhere and nowhere in this Baghdad. His motives—if he has motives, if he’s a he, if he even exists—can only be speculated about, with the ongoing carnage and chaos steadily supplying new fodder for speculation. Joseph also shows other kinds of speculation going on, as when two U.S. soldiers guarding the Baghdad Zoo wonder why its tiger hasn’t escaped when all the lions did. The tiger (Robin Williams), who serves as our interlocutor, explains: The lions, roaming the streets, got gunned down; he, safe in his cage, gets regular meals. It’s the first of many ironic paradoxes Joseph will use to balance off his play’s competing forces.
Speculation also takes tangible forms: Apart from one character’s sheltered adolescent sister—another ghost, seen only in flashback—those onstage, Americans and Iraqis alike, think less of religion, war, or politics, than of what they can grab out of the chaos to sell for their own future survival. Bengal Tiger‘s principal action involves the travels, from hand to hand, of a gold-plated gun and a gold toilet seat, looted from the mansion of Saddam Hussein’s son Uday, himself a mocking ghost (Hrach Titizian), whose constant rebuttal to the American presence is, like its phantom speaker, insubstantial but persistent in its lingering. “This place is lousy with ghosts,” the tiger complains.
Cunningly, Joseph spreads the iconic resonance of the two looted objects all across the play’s social spectrum: Not a glib takedown of American ostentation and American violence, his drama scrutinizes how those values cater to the worst in human nature worldwide, and how they twist, as they cross cultures, to turn against whoever fosters them, becoming yet another question to ask God, if anybody of that name is here and listening. Having become ghosts, Joseph’s characters learn much, but never get the ultimate explanation of how and why they came to where they wound up. That’s left for us to ponder.
It’s in approaching this final stage that Joseph’s play falls slightly short. Preoccupied with his central figure, Musa (Arian Moayed), a disillusioned Hussein underling turned translator for U.S. forces, the author narrows his dramatic focus just where it should expand outward. Musa’s story, like those of the two soldiers guarding the tiger, with whom he becomes involved, is too exceptional to constitute a complete statement of what the upheaval in Baghdad has meant, for Iraqis or for us.
Even here, though, Joseph eschews contrivance: What happens feels natural, never faked up for effect. His good sense in this has probably been abetted by director Moisés Kaufman, who sculpts the play astutely while setting his actors uniformly ablaze. Williams, grizzled and spade-bearded, sometimes sounds raspy from sustaining his triple-decker speeches in this musical-size house, but neither his ferocity nor his comic timing ever flags. And the house never dwarfs Kaufman’s spacious, passionate, yet delicately nuanced production.