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Review Roundup: Rajiv Joseph's GUARDS AT THE TAJ Opens Off-Broadway


Atlantic Theater Company welcomes Tony Award nominated actor and director Amy Morton to stage the world premiere of Pulitzer Prize finalist Rajiv Joseph's play Guards at the Taj, starring Tony Award nominated actors Omar Metwally andArian Moayed. Guards at the Taj officially opens tonight, June 11, off-Broadway at Atlantic Theater Company.

In 1648 India, two Imperial Guards watch from their post as the sun rises for the first time on the newly-completed Taj Mahal -- an event that shakes their respective worlds. When they are ordered to perform an unthinkable task, the aftermath forces them to question the concept of friendship, beauty and duty, and changes them forever.

Let's see what the critics had to say...

Charles Isherwood, The New York Times: The Taj Mahal is among the world's most ravishingly beautiful creations, but should you have a chance to see it in person after watching "Guards at the Taj," a new play by Rajiv Joseph, you may find yourself viewing it through a bloodstained haze. In this mostly absorbing two-hander...Mr. Joseph dramatizes a dark myth about its building that stands as a grim allegory of the supreme divide between the powerful and the powerless in 17th-century India and, perhaps by extension, many places today...Mr. Joseph's frisky, often funny dialogue freely indulges in anachronism. While the personalities of the characters feel authentic, they speak as two young men of similar backgrounds might today...Although the actors share an easy rapport...the dialogue sometimes feels like throat-clearing as Mr. Joseph eases into a startling revelation..."Guards at the Taj," which has been directed with a rich sense of atmosphere by Ms. Morton...raises potent questions about the human price paid throughout history for the caprices of the mighty, even when they result in architectural wonders that ultimately give pleasure to the masses.

Mark Kennedy, Associated Press: Joseph, who wrote the Broadway play "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo," uses these two poor men in 1648 in India to explore beauty, trauma, bureaucracy and friendship. It's deeply moving, lovingly acted and packed with ideas. But it's not for everyone, as Joseph channels a little Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot," a touch of Martin McDonagh and quite a bit of Quentin Tarantino. There's existential angst, silliness, horror and pitch-black humor...The world premiere opened Thursday at the Atlantic Theater Company starring Tony Award-nominated actors Omar Metwally and Arian Moayed, both tremendous under the muscular direction of Amy Morton...At the play's end, you may look down at your hands with a new-found respect. Then put them together to honor an envelope-pushing playwright and two stunning actors.

Marilyn Stasio, Variety: In his strikingly original drama, "Guards at the Taj," Rajiv Joseph ("The Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo") entrusts the romantic legend of the Taj Mahal to two lowly palace guards. What, pray tell, is beauty - and who owns it? It takes a cataclysmic event for that philosophical conundrum to capture the imagination of the two young Imperial Guards standing sentry at the momentous unveiling of the Taj Mahal in 1648. Meanwhile, the playwright's amusingly anachronistic idiom and two excellent performances from the likable actors in this two-hander keep us entertained - and totally unprepared for some shocking plot turns.

David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter: It begins almost like a comedy sketch but develops into a haunting consideration of loyalty and betrayal between friends, of duty and blind adherence to barbaric command, and of the ownership of beauty...[Morton] has coaxed layered performances fueled by surreptitious power and startling shots of pain from her exemplary actors, Omar Metwally and Arian Moayed. Speaking and behaving in a consciously anachronistic contemporary American vernacular, they lull us into a false sense of comfort by playing the archetypal buddy dynamic of the humorless prig and the jokester. But those roles alter and take on new shadings throughout, echoing everything from Waiting for Godot to Rosencrantz and Guildernstern are Dead, via Beavis and Butthead. This is a play that moves from pitch-black absurdist comedy to horrific brutality, from philosophical reflection to surreal observation, keeping those shifts fluid and consistent with the overall scheme throughout...If Joseph is perhaps less focused on story, his attention to philosophical, existential and spiritual questions makes Guards at the Taj a strange but unexpectedly moving experience.

Adam Feldman, Time Out NY: By its second scene, Guards at the Taj has veered savagely from its funny, gently puzzled, Waiting for Godot-ish beginnings into grotesque brutality, inspired by a legend of the Taj Mahal's creation: Imagine Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead as written by Martin McDonagh, then add a whole lot more blood. Director Amy Morton ably navigates the jarring shifts of tone, as do the two exceptional actors, who meet and exceed the exhausting demands of their roles. Although the bittersweet final sequence doesn't quite come off, by then Joseph's play has done its gruesome work. It has the scary-comic impact of a demon mask, and you won't soon forget it.

Robert Kahn, NBC New York: The timeframe not withstanding, guards Humayun and Babur (Omar Metwally and Arian Moayed) speak with coolly modern and accessible dialogue, including profanities. Their conversations begin as a meditation on beauty, but evolve into a relatable discussion of morality hinging on the idea of responsibility for one's actions...Actors Metwally and Moayed have a breezy rapport -- it's their ease and comfort that makes "Guards at the Taj" such a nail-biting and urgent entertainment...In the first scene, the actors merely talk in front of a gray wall. A jolting reveal comes in the second, and it's a magnificent bit of theatrics, though not for the squeamish...It's a well-crafted meditation on friendship and loyalty that calls to mind more contemporary ideas of men who have committed heinous acts simply because they were following orders.

Joe Dziemianowicz, New York Daily News: Rajiv Joseph gives us plenty to admire in his new play, "Guards at the Taj." He hooks us quickly. He surprises with tonal shifts, jumping from "The Odd Couple" breezy to "Game of Thrones" ghastly. He creates compelling and sympathetic characters. So it's too bad that Joseph doesn't deliver a clearer sense of where the play wants to go -- and what it's saying once it gets there. As is, the 85-minute finely acted and evocatively designed. But it's also fuzzy and, finally, frustrating...Both actors deliver vivid performances under the direction of Amy Morton...But the play eventually spins its wheels.

Elisabeth Vincentelli, New York Post: The play has lofty ambitions, but in reality it boils down to roundabout discussions between two dingbats who find themselves in over their heads. Sadly, the point is as lost on us as it is on them. Playwright Rajiv Joseph likes aiming high -- his Broadway show "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" was a Pulitzer finalist -- but the execution tends to fall short, as it does here...Blood and black humor can mix, as Martin McDonagh proved in "The Lieutenant of Inishmore," but we're far from that level here...The production by Amy Morton...may have worked better with slightly younger actors -- Metwally and Moayed feel too experienced to play wide-eyed, entry-level grunts. Even then, it'd still be hard to shake the disconnect between the show's lofty subject -- the death of beauty! -- and its glib tone.

Brendan Lemon, Financial Times: Writers are forever proclaiming the death of big ideas -- history, philosophy, socialism. The focus of Rajiv Joseph's new play at the Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater is the demise of beauty. Imaginative in its premise and benefiting from committed performances by its two actors, the play nonetheless comes across as rather overinsistent thematically and tonally too abrupt to register powerfully...As Babur, both the more mischievous and the more reckless. But Metwally comes into his own late in the story, when the weight of his actions affects him fully.

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Photo by Doug Hamilton

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