You get hungry, you get stupid, you get shot and die. This is the world according to the title Tiger in Rajiv Joseph’s impressive, affecting, occasionally affected mini-opera of magical pathos Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. The big cat (Robin Williams, costumed only in contempo-Mesopotamian street clothes and a barbarous spider-hole ruff of facial hair) has a more-than-theoretical underpinning for his belief system: First off, he’s a resident/inmate of the Baghdad Zoo — not a super-nice place before the 2003 American invasion and even worse after. Second, he’s dead within five minutes of our meeting him: Half-starved and pissed off on an existential level (“Zoo is hell. Ask any animal. Like that polar bear they brought in six years ago. He committed suicide. Some world”), the Tiger bites off the hand of one American Marine, Tom (Glenn Davis), and is subsequently shot down by another, the jangly nerved Kev (Brad Fleischer).
For the rest of the show, he prowls the stage as a ghost, trying to make sense of Being, arguing with a God whom he first doubts, then supplicates, and constantly curses. Meanwhile, the living characters, their numbers steadily dwindling, quarrel with each other and the many other ghosts that haunt this city of sudden, bewildering, and indiscriminate obliteration. Eventually, nearly everybody ends up on the Tiger’s side of the bars, ontologically speaking — the wrong side, it turns out: 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.)
Bengal Tiger is a major leap for Joseph, who’s explored Tiger’s themes — the limits of self-knowledge in the face of character and nature, the practical joke of onion-skin vulnerability and savage appetite existing in the same doomed, human animal — in a variety of smaller, more delicate plays (Gruesome Playground Injuries, Animals Out of Paper), all set in far safer milieus and designed with more modest dramaturgical parameters. Bengal gives full roar to everything that those earlier works kept coiled and unspoken, and Joseph’s voice must be recognized as a major one. His witty, crass, hypercolloquial verbal wonderment teetering somewhere between the Kushnerian and the Joss Whedonesque, he is, without a doubt, a real stage poet. And, unlike a great many young writers, he’s not afraid to debate the cosmos. The action mainly takes place in the decimated topiary garden of Uday Hussein (Hrach Titizian, strutting his Satanic stuff), which was designed by a tormented gardener turned translator named Musa (the excellent Arian Moayed). When the Tiger stumbles upon it, he decides he may have found what the archaeologists haven’t: Eden. But there’s a problem: “At first it’s pretty cool: The limitless fruit of knowledge hanging low in your path. Then you realize it’s the only thing to eat around here.”
So why does Bengal Tiger still feel ever-so-slightly slight? Where’s that telltale tang of the synthetic wafting from? Part of it might be the high sheen of Joseph’s poetry, which is so punchy and pop-inflected that it sometimes feels airbrushed. But mostly to blame, I think, is the persistent problem of Iraq. The rap on Bush-era war stories is unless you’re making an arthouse documentary, it’s Still Too Soon. Audiences supposedly aren’t ready to process (read: pay money for) harrowing tales from the Green Zone, to say nothing of Kandahar. I couldn’t disagree more. In fact, I’d say Bengal Tiger (which is set in 2003) occasionally feels almost like a period piece. Far from being uninitiated, we may know the unfortunates who populate this menagerie a bit too well: the morally ADD American boy-soldiers, the average Iraqi caught between two worlds and pushed too far, etc. Joseph equips them with heartbreaking arias of philosophic longing, but on some fundamental level, these guys (the Marines, especially) feel more like prosthetic extensions of debates and self-critiques our culture has already internalized (without, I should add, actually coming to grips with them). There’s a plastic hand at work here in the garden, and it doesn’t belong to Tom: Director Moises Kaufman nails all the broad brushwork and gets the big shocks just right, but he stops well short of pushing the company and the text into the very heart of darkness — and, in truth, Bengal Tiger is too airy a work for that kind of hip-deep slogging. It settles instead in mythic Baghdad, capital not of Iraq, but of the guilty American heart. It’s still a scary place, maybe even scarier than the real deal, with or without Williams’s Tiger in it. But you’re awfully glad he’s there: A comedian playing a dead animal ultimately turns out to be the most serious, most consequential thing onstage.