Review: Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo

Robin Williams is a jungle cat prowling war-torn Iraq.

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  • Photograph: Carol Rosegg

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Photograph: Carol Rosegg

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Time Out Ratings

<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

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.

As he showed earlier this spring with the much less satisfying Gruesome Playground Injuries, Joseph has a flair for clever structure. Bengal Tiger is essentially a two-hour Mbius strip, a sinuous dramatic arc that begins with a bang: Williams's audience-addressing cat (dressed in rumpled clothes) is blown away by a callow grunt (Brad Fleischer) after the animal bites the hand off a fellow soldier (Glenn Davis) in the early days of the Iraq War. Liberated from his body, the spectral Tiger haunts the streets of bombed-out Baghdad, struggling with a flood of remorse from his newfound moral consciousness. "It wasn't cruel. It was lunch!" he protests, recalling two children he dined on back in India. Just so, the soldiers whose lives he mauled can't change their stripes; guilt and greed drive them into madness and death, dragging along an ex-gardener turned translator (the keenly sympathetic Arian Moayed), himself scarred from horrors under Saddam Hussein.

Grandly staged by Moiss Kaufman as a nightmarish morality tale that alternates between gritty realism and ghoulish frights, the play is refreshingly topical, and a stylistically daring addition to the Broadway season. Still, for all its shocks and grimness, Bengal Tiger never loses its sense of wonder or even—heaven forbid—humor. Not that the Tiger's final rant against God is technically funny. Unless your idea of a belly laugh is the Supreme Being stuck in a cage.

See more Theater reviews

Richard Rodgers Theatre (see Broadway). By Rajiv Joseph. Dir. Moiss Kaufman. With Robin Williams, Arian Moayed, Glenn Davis, Brad Fleischer. 2hrs. One intermission.

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