May 18, 2011

"The Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" Doesn't Have as Strong a Bite as It Should

My hats off to the Hollywood carpetbaggers who’ve come to Broadway this season. People like to complain about how movie stars are taking roles from established Broadway actors.  But without the presence of Chris Rock and Robin Williams, it’s unlikely that The Motherf**ker with the Hat and Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo would even have come to Broadway.  Which means that talented young playwrights like Stephen Adly Guirgis and Rajiv Joseph wouldn’t have had the chance to see their work there.  Or that Motherf**ker’s Yul Vázquez and Elizabeth Rodriguez and Bengal Tiger’s Arian Moayed, all making impressive Broadway debuts, wouldn’t have been eligible for the Tony nominations they now deservedly have. 

On the other hand, the folks who come out solely to see the big-name stars in these shows may be disappointed. For both Rock and Williams have taken smaller parts that keep them off-stage for stretches of time. 

But even diehard Rock fans probably shouldn’t mind that too much because The Motherf**ker with the Hat is totally enjoyable in its own right (click here to see my review).  Alas, I can't say the same for Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.  And I don’t know who to blame for that. 

Joseph's Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, which tells the story of Americans and Iraqis in the early days of the Iraq War, is one of the rare American plays to deal with current political events and was a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize (click here to read a Q&A with the playwright)

This production is directed by Moisés Kaufman, one of the most inventive minds in show business. And yet, this Tiger wanders all over the place, only pausing occasionally to observe that war is hell or to pat itself on the back for being clever enough to recognize that truism.

The play, which was inspired by a true event at the beginning of the war, starts with the killing of a tiger by a jittery American soldier. In Joseph’s version, the soldier has just come from the firefight that killed Saddam Hussein’s eldest son Uday. 

The solider is distracted by thoughts of the gold-plated gun and toilet seat he pilfered from a Hussein palace and instead of protecting the zoo animals as he's been assigned to do, he panics when the starving tiger attacks a buddy who has moved too close to the cage. And that’s only the beginning of the horrors.

The soldiers belong to a platoon whose Iraqi interpreter was once Uday’s gardener and a victim of the younger Hussein’s sadism. Before the play ends, there will be rape, murder, and suicide. Throughout it all, the ghosts of the dead tiger, the assassinated Uday and others will haunt the living.

Comparisons to the fraught relationship between America and Iraq over the last eight years are clearly intended.  But, in this case, that also means the characters are portrayed more as symbols than real people and that makes it hard to really care about them.

Williams plays the tiger, who both before and after its death serves as a one-man Greek chorus that comments on the action. This sounds like a joke but isn’t. There’s no attempt to make Williams look like a tiger. He’s dressed in simple but shabby Afghan-style clothes. Only the bushy beard he's grown suggests the animal's muzzle.

And just as Rock has done in The Motherf**ker with the Hat, Williams has chosen a role that plays to his strength. The tiger is a wiseacre; many of his lines are as wickedly funny as Jon Stewart’s on a good night. Yet Williams, who is, after all, a Juilliard-trained actor and an Oscar winner, doesn’t go crazy with them but stays in character (click here to read an interview with him).

But despite Williams’ above-the-title billing and final bow at the curtain call, the tiger isn’t the main character in the play. That role actually belongs to the interpreter, who has been so callously used by both the Hussein family and the American occupiers that he eventually resorts to violence himself.  Moayed brings an elegant intensity to the role and I'm glad he's been recognized for it but it’s not enough.

Perhaps everyone involved was just too conscious of the gravity of the subject.  Whatever the reason, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo ends up as a tiger chasing its own tail.


Leigh Hile said...

"Comparisons to the fraught relationship between America and Iraq over the last eight years are clearly intended. But, in this case, that also means the characters are portrayed more as symbols than real people and that makes it hard to really care about them."

I didn't write a full review of the show, but I felt the exact same way. (

And I also agree that Arian Moayed gave a fantastic performance. I was pleasantly surprised by Robin Williams, too. I'm not a huge Williams fan, but I thought he really held it down.

jan@broadwayandme said...

Leigh, much belated thanks for your thoughtful comment. I finally had a chance to check out your post and love the idea of your doing something on shows that everyone liked but you don't. I think lots of people worry about going against the conventional wisdom but, of course, we're all entitled to our opinions and the differences are especially valuable when they're as eloquently argued as your dissents.