We gave it a B-
Fair warning to Robin Williams fans dropping $135 to see the Oscar winner get his feline on in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo: Rajiv Joseph’s enigmatic Iraq-War drama is not The Robin Williams Show. It’s not even a Robin Williams vehicle. The role — an atheistic, smart-mouthed tiger who’s killed for maiming a U.S. Marine, then forced to roam aimlessly through a bombed-out, burned-up Baghdad garden — does afford the comic a few wry, stand-up-style punchlines. (On lions: ”dumb sons of bitches.” On topiaries: ”I mean, what the f— is this supposed to be?”) But how can an undead cat compete with a hallucinating soldier (Brad Fleischer), an intense Iraqi gardener?turned?U.S. translator (Arian Moayed), and dead but power-mad dictator-scion Uday Hussein (Hrach Titizian)? Williams almost fades into the foliage. That’s not actually entirely bad; Williams, clad not in fur or stripes but in ratty gray street clothes, blends into the onstage ensemble rather easily, despite this being his Broadway acting debut.
Bengal Tiger also marks the first Broadway outing for Joseph, whose previous works include the origami-themed Animals Out of Paper and the masochistic two-hander Gruesome Playground Injuries, which opened Off Broadway in February. He writes sharply and economically, and he certainly earns points for creating another original premise. I can’t think of another Iraq-War play that involves a jungle animal eating a soldier’s hand. However, I’m still waiting for one in which the soldiers are three-dimensional characters. Viewed individually or together, Kev (Fleischer) and Tom (Glenn Davis) are trigger-happy, thickheaded, sex-obsessed, and insensitive to the point of ridiculousness. Thankfully, the Iraqi characters — particularly the beaten-down Musa, whom Moayed infuses with a delicate, world-weary charm — get better treatment. Once Uday barrels on stage — toting, and talking to, the severed head of his brother, Ousay — Bengal Tiger begins to feel more like Musa’s story, and it becomes really difficult to give a rip about the idiotic American characters. (Or the tiger, even if he is having an existential crisis.) Once Musa’s sister (Sheila Vand) appears in a flashback, it becomes almost impossible to know where to focus. I found myself searching all the nooks and crannies of Derek McLane’s stunning, mosaic-studded set, and coveting a certain Pier 1-esque pendant lamp.
Fortunately, Williams’ character reappears periodically to philosophize, to terrorize, and to corral the audience’s attention when the story meanders. The actor delivers a generous, understated, utterly ham-free performance. His tiger has fangs, but also heart. And it’s a shame he doesn’t have a meatier story line. B?
(Tickets: Ticketmaster.com or 877-250-2929)