The arrival on Broadway of Rajiv Joseph’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo provides at least three reasons for rejoicing. Its subject, the war in Iraq, has been relegated to off-Broadway or, more often, to off-off-Broadway; to explore the tragedy at the heart of theatreland is, at the very least, a strong reminder that the conflict’s costs, as Joseph makes clear, persist long after the bodies are buried.
Further good news: unlike the brutal realism of many films about Iraq, Bengal Tiger’s conception turns on the poetry of embodied metaphor. Two soldiers are ordered to guard the Baghdad zoo in 2003, and when one of them has a hand bitten off by a caged tiger, the other kills the beast. The tiger’s magical spirit haunts the characters for much of the story.
A third hurrah: Robin Williams is back on Broadway, not in a comic one-man show, his preferred mode when there, but in a proper play. He is the titular character (yes, the tiger) if not, perhaps disappointingly for the legions who have paid Broadway prices to see him act, the character with the most stage time.
If there are three cheers for its conception, this production, directed by Moisés Kaufman, also deserves at least one for execution: the two-hour evening is never dull. This is owing not to the story of the two soldiers – one of whom, portrayed by Brad Fleischer, succumbs to stress, while the other, portrayed by the generally sensitive actor Glenn Davis with atypical bluntness, returns to Iraq with a bionic hand – but to that of Musa, an Iraqi translator for the US military who used to be a topiarist in the Hussein family’s gardens.
Far more than Williams’s tiger, who wanders the stage cursing God and uttering philosophical banalities about carnage, Musa allows the playwright to explore the theme of the artist – of civilisation – bulldozed by the tanks of war. Alone among the ensemble, who enact their struggles against the backdrop of Derek McLane’s giant-topiary set, Arian Moayed, as Musa, manages to suggest the layers of a tormented inner life.