Robin Williams Is a Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, Opening on Broadway March 31
By Kenneth Jones
Rajiv Joseph's Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, starring Robin Williams as the self-questioning title character who roams a haunted patch of Iraq, circa 2003, opens on Broadway March 31 following previews from March 11.
The drama — flooded with dreamlike flashbacks, eruptions of violence and broken creatures pondering existential questions — was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Williams makes his Broadway acting debut as a grizzled feline set free from a cage in the Baghdad zoo. He is the only character to directly address the audience. Moisés Kaufman, the director of Broadway's 33 Variations and I Am My Own Wife, directs the production, repeating work that he began in two Los Angeles engagements of the play.
The play, now at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, is billed as a "savagely funny and deeply affecting play" in which "a tiger haunts the streets of present-day Baghdad seeking the meaning of life." The tiger "witnesses the puzzling absurdities of war," encountering "Americans and Iraqis who are searching for friendship, redemption and a toilet seat made of gold."
With the exception of Academy Award winner Williams ("Good Will Hunting," "Good Morning Vietnam," "Mrs. Doubtfire"), the Broadway company is made up of performers who appeared in earlier Los Angeles-area engagements of the acclaimed play in 2009 and 2010.
The troupe features Glenn Davis as Tom, an American Marine who plunders local riches; Brad Fleischer as Kev, a Marine broken by war; Hrach Titizian as the ghost of Uday Hussein and others; Sheila Vand in multiple roles; Necar Zadegan in multiple roles; and Arian Moayed as Musa, an Iraqi gardener (and witness to atrocities) now serving as a translator for American forces. (For the record, Kevin Tighe played the Tiger in California.)
Williams has appeared on Broadway as a standup comedian, but not in a dramatic role. The Oscar, Emmy and Grammy Award-winning Williams appeared Off-Broadway opposite Steve Martin in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot at Lincoln Center in 1988. He shot to fame on the TV series "Mork & Mindy" before enjoying Hollywood stardom.
With the casting of Williams for the Broadway run, was Brooklyn-based, Ohio-bred playwright Joseph urged to "bump up" the comedy of the role?
"Not at all," Joseph told Playbill.com. "Not at all was there a pressure to do that. The least of it came from Robin Williams. Robin was drawn to the material because of his own experiences overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan, visiting soldiers. We often, especially in the beginning of rehearsals, let him know that it was actually O.K. [to be funny] — that this moment can be funny, that this moment can be something that is going to make the audience laugh and that it is not all so serious."
Joseph said that he did a lot of reading to prepare for Bengal Tiger. Indeed, the inciting event of the play (a soldier's hand is bit by a tiger at the Baghdad zoo) is drawn from a newspaper account. The article prompted Joseph to write a ten-minute play that he later expanded into the full-length drama. The major character of Musa, a gardener/translator, is entirely fictional, the playwright said.
"Thomas Ricks' book 'Fiasco' was a big influence on me," he said. "And then other things that were just stranger: The film, 'Fast, Cheap and Out of Control' by Errol Morris, which has nothing to do with Iraq and nothing to do with war, ended up being a large fascination for me. It seems when I write things, my so-called 'research' is less research in the conventional sense and more research in terms of looking at things that I can't look away from — that I find some kind of sympathetic echo with whatever I am looking at or hearing towards what I am thinking about writing. And often times, I love it when those things are not related in any logical way."
Glenn Davis appeared Off-Broadway in the Vineyard Theatre production of Tarell McCraney's Wig Out and at Steppenwolf Theatre in McCraney's The Brother/Sister Plays. Brad Fleischer, seen Off-Broadway in the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of Streamers and on Broadway in Coram Boy, has appeared in Joseph's play Gruesome Playground Injuries at the Alley Theatre. Arian Moayed's credits include Tony Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul at BAM and Steppenwolf, Queens Blvd at Signature Theatre and American Pilot at Manhattan Theatre Club. He received a Drama Desk Award nomination for his performance in Masked Off-Broadway at DR2 Theatre. A stage actor and former theatre producer, Hrach Titizian has appeared in the films "The Kingdom" and "The Men Who Stare at Goats." Sheila Vand appeared in the Los Angeles Theatre Company production of Portrait of the Architect in Ruins and was a regular on the television series "Prom Queen." Necar Zadegan appeared in the West Coast premiere of Diana Son's play Stop Kiss.
Joseph is the 36-year-old American playwright whose plays include Gruesome Playground Injuries (recently at Off-Broadway's Second Stage Theatre), Animals Out of Paper, Huck & Holden, All This Intimacy and The Leopard and the Fox.
The production has scenic design by Tony winner Derek McLane, costume design by David Zinn, lighting design by David Lander, sound design by Acme Sound Partners, and original music composed by Kathryn Bostic.
Director Kaufman received a Tony nomination for his direction of Doug Wright's play I Am My Own Wife, and a Tony nomination as playwright for 33 Variations, seen on Broadway starring Jane Fonda (it's currently playing Los Angeles). As founder of Tectonic Theatre Project, he wrote and directed Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, and directed The Laramie Project, which he co-wrote with other members of the company.
Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is produced on Broadway by Robyn Goodman, Kevin McCollum, Jeffrey Seller, Sander Jacobs, Ruth Hendel/Burnt Umber, Scott and Brian Zeilinger, Center Theater Group and Stephen Kocis/Walt Grossman.
The Rodgers (recently home to In the Heights) is at 226 W. 46 St. between Broadway and Eighth Avenue. Performances play Tuesdays at 7 PM, Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 PM, with matinees on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 PM and Sundays at 3 PM.
Tickets to Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo are also available by calling Ticketmaster at (877) 250-2929 or (800) 745-3000. Tickets can also be purchased online at www.ticketmaster.com or by visiting www.bengaltigeronbroadway.com.
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