Rajiv Joseph’s Guards at the Taj, at the Atlantic, concerns itself with the overwhelming power of beauty; naturally, it is brutal to an almost nauseating degree. Is it unfair to the audience that the first of the play’s five scenes barely hints at the violence? Rather, it begins with the intense inactivity of a man at attention, keeping sentry at dawn; this is Humayun, the more obedient and unimaginative of the two title characters. Babur, the dreamier one, is late for duty. Though they are forbidden to speak, a conversation immediately arises between the old friends once Babur arrives, disheveled and filled with ideas for inventions: a rocket ship he calls an Allah-aero-platforma-al-Agra-Babura, an invisible house, rain seeded with tea. (Humayun’s “inventions” are less practical.) The pair have a captivating Laurel-and-Hardy-meet-Vladimir-and-Estragon rapport, filling the time and outwitting boredom (they are not even allowed to look at what they’re guarding) with fantasies, gossip, and philosophical riddles.
They are also, fairly baldly, filling in the backstory. What they are guarding is of course the Taj Mahal, which, this morning in 1648, is about to be revealed to the world. (During its 16-year construction, we learn, it was hidden behind walls that were themselves monumental.) Shah Jahan, the Mughal emperor who ordered it built as a memorial to his favorite wife, also decreed (or so Humayun tells us) that nothing so beautiful should ever be built again. Humayun is struck by the historical awesomeness of that decree, even if it means, as he has been told, that the hands of the 20,000 laborers and artisans who worked on the project will have to be chopped off as insurance. Babur is less impressed: “That’s a terrible job,” he says.
Though the costumes — sashes, tunics, turbans, swords — are period and the setting is neutral, the language is decidedly contemporary: Humayun is “insensitive,” Babur is “messed up,” the emperor is “shithouse crazy.” Amusing as such locutions may be, they are by now a rather tired ploy for injecting humor and verve into otherwise unfunny and static situations. In earlier plays such as Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo and Gruesome Playground Injuries, Joseph either did this more subtly or made room in the overall dramatic cosmology for such large variations of tone. Certainly, in Bengal Tiger, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer in 2010, Robin Williams, as the title animal, was able to make the comedy and pathos converge. Alas, here, they are bifurcated. The odd-numbered scenes are light, or at least bearable; the even-numbered ones are nightmares. Because guess who gets the “terrible job”?
You could almost accept the extreme violence of parts of Guards at the Taj — which might as well be called Gruesome Dungeon Injuries — as a necessary part of Joseph’s inquiry into the uses and misuses of beauty. When Humayun and Babur finally do sneak a look at the Taj, they are so profoundly moved they weep, a response shared by millions since. Yet while continuing to serve as a fitting monument to human love (it’s a very sexy building) it is also, Joseph suggests, a monument to inhumanity. Tyrants use beauty to destroy beauty. That’s a worthwhile idea for the theater to explore, but when a play attempts to build its own edifice from such pebbles of history as the 20,000 hands, audience members may rightly feel the result is unstable if they suspect (and, back at home, confirm) that the story isn’t true. The emperor’s revenge on his builders is a myth, a folklore, common to many, much more ancient tales. And though mythology has a place onstage, I’m not convinced that Joseph has played square in using it as an excuse for what amounts to dramaturgical sadism. Extreme stage violence is mostly a sign of theatrical exhaustion; there’s a reason Shakespeare’s most gratuitously bloody play — Titus Andronicus — is among his least performed.
At any rate, in Guards at the Taj, the violence is self-cancelling, causing anyone not primed by massive video game exposure to check out of the gross parts in disgust. Unfortunately, this means checking out of the more rewarding parts, too, or at least not engaging with them unguardedly. That’s a shame; a lot of the work being done in those scenes, by Omar Metwally as Humayun and Arian Moayed as Babur, is top-notch. (The director is Steppenwolf star Amy Morton, pouring on the gore.) How odd that a play aiming to dramatize an assault on sensitivity should perpetrate the same assault on its audience. But then, as Joseph demonstrates too well, anyone can be a tyrant.
Guards at the Taj is at the Atlantic Theater Company through June 28.