It has taken almost a full 60 years to step up to the plate, but on March 31 Robin Williams finally got around to his Broadway acting debut, at the Richard Rodgers — so why aren't we surprised that this unbridled madcap did it in the title role of Rajiv Joseph's Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo? It's a suitably eccentric choice, perfectly in keeping with his rapid-fire, zany, free-fall wit.
What is surprising is he achieves this illusion without suiting up like Tony the Tiger — merely with a wildly unruly 'do and a scruffy beard that could qualify as mangy. Plus, he plays this theatrical conceit with complete conviction — as an actor.
"That's what I was trained as — I went to Juilliard for that, so this is not like bad news for me," he quipped when he was inevitably quizzed about feeling constrained in having to stick to a set script night after night. "No," he said simply. "It's easy."
But balancing his discipline against audience anticipations was not easy at times — especially since he has some fiercely funny lines. One rambling, run-together, manic speech in particular earned him enthusiastic exit-applause on opening night, but he did not encourage this — as if to say he wasn't still doing his evening of standup, Robin Williams: Live on Broadway, which he did at the Broadway Theatre in July of 2002, or the 2009 one-man-show he had to cancel here for heart surgery.
At the after-party held at the spacious Espace on very West 42nd Street, Williams sported the true stage colors that he didn't show at the theatre — a bright orange tie with black swirls: his tiger tie. "It's a gift from Carol Shorenstein Hayes."
Held prisoner on the other coast where he has raked in five Grammys, four Golden Globes, two Emmys and one Oscar, Williams did make it to the New York stage in a play once — in 1988, at Lincoln Center's Mitzi Newhouse Theatre, in the shadow of his alma mater — memorably playing Estragon to Steve Martin's Vladimir in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot for director Mike Nichols.
"That was a great time," he recalled. "In fact, Godot is why I wanted to do this play. It reminded me of Godot. It's a lot like it. A heavy-armed Godot."
The time is early in the Iraqi war, eight years ago. Two American Marines are standing guard at the Baghdad zoo, protecting the life of an exotic import (that Bengal tiger played by Williams), sparing him the fate that befell a pride of lions that were slaughtered by firepower. Trouble is, the tiger is hungry, too, and, when Tom (Glenn Davis) offers him a Slim Jim, the animal helps himself to the whole hand, prompting callow Kev (Brad Fleischer) to shoot the tiger dead.
Williams extends his Broadway debut beyond this opening scene by coming back as a ghost, lingering over and commenting on the rest of the play, haunting his trigger-happy assailant until he too becomes a ghost and persistently hovers over the life of the one-handed soldier who returns to active duty with a new, robotic hand. ("Top of the line," Tom keeps calling it, with pride and bluster.) Characters come and go and fade into ghosts, and some of them even are D.O.A., like Uday (Hrach Titizian), slain son of Saddam Hussein; Uday's gold-plated pistol and gilded toilet seat represent plunder for survivors.
Playwright Joseph, a youngish 36-year-old from an Indian family in Cleveland, was asked what prompted him to write this play, which was a Pulitzer Prize also-ran last season. "It was an article in the paper, and then it was several articles in the paper," he replied. "And it was my own curiosity about what was happening in Iraq in 2003-4-5, all that time when we were there, when it was really intense. I was just curious, that's all."
The gravity of being A Broadway Playwright — it's also his Main Stem debut, after several promise-filled Off-Broadway entries (as recent as Gruesome Playground Injuries) — had not quite settled on him at the party, but he wouldn't be resting on any laurels: "No, sir, I'm leaving on Monday to start rehearsals for my new play, The Monster at the Door at the Alley Theatre in Houston with Adam Green andPortia in the leads. It's about a woman who gets hit by a meteorite." (If you've been through Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, you don't blink an eye at this description.) After that, he said, getting a bit cautious, "I'm working on a musical and a couple of commissions. I like to keep busy."
It took Moisés Kaufman ten pages of script to know that he wanted to direct this play, and he spent the past two springs staging the piece in Los Angeles — first at The Kirk Douglas Theatre and then at the larger Mark Taper Forum — readying it for spring on Broadway. It was the same cast, with one conspicuous exception: the L.A. tiger, he said, was "a wonderful actor, Kevin Tighe."
Kaufman is earning quite a rep — and big points with theatre owners — for coaxing major stars to Broadway. Jane Fonda just finished reprising her Tony-nominated performance in his 33 Variations in Los Angeles — and now Williams, who entered the casting discussions "in one of those sessions where you sit around the table and say, 'O.K., who can do this?' and then you go for it."
So what is Kaufman's catnip in luring established stars into the theatre? "I think they're hungry to do hopefully interesting, daring works that deal with ideas that they can get excited about. And I think, invariably, that has to be the case."
Once you land him, how do you direct Robin Williams? "Very easily," he replied, insisting that the actor's famed mania for comic riffs never entered the rehearsal room. "Every single word Robin speaks on stage in the play is a word that Rajiv has written. It was very easy to work with him. He's a consummate professional."
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