Rajiv Joseph's Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, which is having its New York premiere at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, is certainly the most distinguished work to arrive on Broadway this season. This is true because of the across-the-board excellence of the artists who have contributed to this production, from the playwright to the director (Moises Kaufman), from the top-notch team of designers to the brilliant ensemble of actors on stage. Here is a play that's been crafted to entertain, to engage, to challenge, and to jolt its audience—and that succeeds in all of these endeavors, shatteringly. Joseph makes us confront the world we've made for ourselves in the past decade. By turns darkly comic, grotesque, horrifying, absurd, and deeply disturbing, Bengal Tiger demands to be seen by people who care about humanity and art and their troubling devolutions in the 21st century.
BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO Broadway Reviews
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Williams has not given a performance this subdued in years. He commits to being part of an ensemble, never ramping up into a star turn. There's no comic shtick in his thoughtful Tiger, yet...the ripples of humor are rich and flavorful. This is not a predigested moral treatise that delivers bite-size conclusions, but a provocative and hauntingly surrealistic play from a distinctive voice.
Depicting the philosophical tiger with grim humor, a gruff-voiced, soulful Williams submerges his bravura skills into the ensemble work of his fellow actors. Respectively playing the conflicted translator and increasingly cerebral Marine, Moayed and Fleischer unerringly chart their characters' evolutions. Titizian suavely portrays the amoral Uday's ghost - who totes his dead brother's head in a plastic bag - with a jaunty ferocity that's scary.
Rajiv Joseph's smart, savagely funny and visionary new work of American theater invites fanciful comparison to the titular beast. "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo," for all the killing and suffering it contains, is buoyed by the vitality of its imaginative scope. Violence is not after all the only human activity that can have far-reaching, unforeseen effects, shaping lives far into the future. Mr. Joseph's richly conceived play reminds us that art can have a powerful afterlife too.
Williams submits himself wholly to the play's utterly natural surrealism. Concerns that the actor might turn this into a vehicle for his signature shtick are dispelled right way: Williams is in complete sync with the blasted tragicomic vision of the playwright, whose ample humor is far too sneaky for stand-up showboating...He's put himself at the drama's service, and if that means ceding the stage to Moayed, whose poignancy has only deepened, so be it.
Joseph may be a gifted young playwright but he has pretty much hit the jackpot by landing the 59-year-old Williams, who stalks this fascinating, ambitious play about war as a restless tiger's ghost in human clothing, all bushy-bearded and sarcastic. The range of emotions Moayed conveys over the course of the play is stunning, while Titizian is nightmarishly good as the murderous Hussein. Williams sinks his teeth into his meaty part, sometimes bending the script to serve his voice, not the other way around.
There are comic zingers scattered throughout Rajiv Joseph’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, and it’s a good thing Robin Williams is around to lob them—but don’t expect guffaws. These punch lines are the kind that pummel, leaving bruises, bloody noses and cracked ribs. When you laugh, it’s the arid chuckle prompted by a cosmic irony, which this surreal war fantasia has in abundance. A gripping, ferocious new drama that includes a morally wracked ghost tiger, buckets of blood and generous swaths of gallows humor, Joseph’s play is a metaphysical thriller equally indebted to Thornton Wilder and Quentin Tarantino.
In Joseph’s play, death is no release, just an invitation to endless, one-sided parlay with the Infinite. And nobody does one-sided parlay like Robin Williams, who gives a remarkably continent, almost minimalist performance. He’s star casting done right, where the mere presence of the celebrity performs an estranging effect, goading us with something familiar yet out of place. Who let that guy out of his cage? (Next up: Mel Gibson in The Hairy Ape, please.)
Staging the play in a large Broadway theater usually reserved for musicals does not work to the play's ultimate advantage. Nevertheless, Rajiv's intelligent drama, as staged by Moisés Kaufman, convincingly captures the chaos of Iraq immediately following the 2003 invasion.
The dark, rich and provocative Rajiv Joseph play "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo," a worthy finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize, has arrived on Broadway with Robin Williams in the title role...Frankly, the tiger could liven up, although the biggest problem with Williams' performance is that it seems to miss much of the amoral ferocity of the beast (a tiger can be depressed or antic, but he is still a tiger). And a bigger problem yet is that Williams' Tiger is, as things go, not so much the protagonist as a sardonic observer of Baghdad ironies.
"This place is lousy with ghosts, and the new ones are irritating," says Robin Williams as the titular beast at the top of Act 2 in "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo," Rajiv Joseph's weird and whacked-out, Pulitzer-nominated play. Unfortunately, that line describes the work itself, as well as the bizarre afterlife in which it is partially set. The fact that one of those annoying phantoms is played by a comic genius helps somewhat, but not enough.
Bengal Tiger also marks the first Broadway outing for Joseph, whose previous works include the origami-themed Animals Out of Paper and the masochistic two-hander Gruesome Playground Injuries, which opened Off Broadway in February. He writes sharply and economically, and he certainly earns points for creating another original premise. I can't think of another Iraq-War play that involves a jungle animal eating a soldier's hand. However, I'm still waiting for one in which the soldiers are three-dimensional characters.
Mr. Williams's performance is equally predictable, but it's not his fault, for he's playing the tiger as written: The script calls for a superficial Hollywood-style performance, and he obliges, sounding not unlike Bruce Willis playing the wisecracking baby in "Look Who's Talking." It doesn't help that his one-liners aren't sharp enough, though Mr. Williams does his best to make them snap..."Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" is still mediocre.
And despite all the ghosts, "Bengal Tiger" isn't as stirring as it strives to be. It restates a famous 1960s war poster that noted: "War is not healthy for children and other living things." Like soldiers, gardeners and tigers.
Moises Kaufman has staged the play with considerable restraint (despite the fact that the male actors tend, incomprehensibly, to be yelling much of the time). David Lander’s pinpoint lighting throws the players and Derek McLane’s minimalist settings into chiaroscuro tableaux vivants of light and dark, most appropriately.
Rajiv Joseph's "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo," which opened last night on Broadway, blends black humor and surreal drama. Yet the comedian's portrayal of the title's big cat is so consistently understated that it becomes self-effacing. Like the show in general, it doesn't deliver on its promise.
Director Moises Kaufman's adept direction raises expectations. But the play doesn't hold up, eventually collapsing in a muddle of mental masturbation. And even that's a symbol too.
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