PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo — A Robin That's a Cat
By Harry Haun
Meet the first-nighters, including Robin Williams, at the opening night of Broadway's Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.
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."
Arian Moayed, who figures movingly in the play as a Hussein gardener-turned-wartime translator, couldn't agree more about Williams' rehearsal deportment. "Oh, he always ad-libs, he always makes us laugh — but it's never with the text," he declared. "As actors, you know how to process. The process is usually personal and private, but Robin's process — because he's such a genius — is open and real and alive and in front, so we get to see his process. It's an amazing thing."
Moayed is the only New York-based actor in the entire company. "Moisés auditioned me here in New York — three days of auditions, an hour each — and the last day he said to me, 'I want you to do this note.' I thought I did what he said, but he said not. I called my agent, and I was, like, 'I didn't get it.' And a couple of hours later, I got it."
Fleischer, who plays the quick-to-shoot Kev, had finished his enlistment as one of the young recruits in the Roundabout revival of David Rabe's Streamers and returned to Los Angeles for pilot season when Bengal Tiger was dangled in front of him. "I told my agents, 'Sorry. If I'm lucky enough to get it, I'm going to take this play no matter what.' And I got it — over a lot of other phenomenal actors.
"I don't think Kev is representative of all soldiers, but there are a lot who go over there who think life is going to be like a video game, and they are, unfortunately, surprised very negatively. The transition of what he goes through, which is losing his mind, is to me what is Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Lots of soldiers come back with it, and Rajiv can represent this in a way that's accessible to audiences."
He doesn't owe his hard body to boot camp, Fleisher admitted. "I got it at Threshold Fitness. My trainer, Matthew Eyde, was, like, 'If you are going to be a Marine, I'm going to train you like a Marine,' and he brought me my threshold."
With the hair-splitting-but-duly-noted exception of Fleischer, who was among the ensemble mob of 40 in Coram Boy, the rest of the actors — Williams, as previously noted, included — were marking their collective bows as Broadway actors.
The two women in the seven-member cast — Sheila Vand and Necar Zadegan — fielded two different roles a piece. Zadegan, in particular, cleaned up spectacularly well for the party, since the last Iraqi woman she played was a leper. "The makeup is so extensive," she noted. "They're all prosthetic pieces, and it's incredibly detailed and my makeup artist, Adam Bailey, is fantastic.
"These two characters I play really exhibit the face of Iraq in the show. The first woman elicits a harsh realism, and the second character is living in the poetic metaphor of the play. That's exactly what I like about the show: the dichotomy between the harsh reality and the poetic metaphor. That dichotomy is exhibited well in my two characters and throughout the play itself. I love it. I think that's where the strength of the show lies."
Theatre arrivals had the kind red carpet commotion that befitted an A-list star. Sting and an old "Comic Relief" cohort of Williams', Billy Crystal, bustled by with the wives in tow, Trudie Styler and Janice Crystal.
Sh-K-Boom Records exec Kurt Deutsch, left holding the purse while wife Sherie Rene Scott worked the press line, was made to feel at ease when asked to recite the original cast recordings he got from the current season: Sister Act, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Catch Me If You Can, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and The Book of Mormon.
Arriving with the wife he found on a red swing in Ragtime (Lynette Perry), producer Kevin McCollum, was asked if he had money in Bengal Tiger. "I have passion in this show," he replied, meaning yes. "If you have passion in a show, money will follow. Money is only the tool. Passion is the destination." Y'know, he could get a guest-lecturer gig at colleges with that spiel.
Neil Simon, with wife Elaine Joyce-Simon on his arm, said, yes, he was working on a new play. ("Always. In my sleep.") Standing beside his longtime producer Emanuel Azenberg, at intermission, the two looked like bookends at the entrance of the Richard Rodgers which they last played with their 45 Seconds from Broadway.
John Glover arrived, still reeling from a wonderful afternoon birthday party —Elizabeth Wilson's 90th! Primary Stages pitched it for her at the West Bank Café and packed the house with her nearest and dearest (Estelle Parsons, Austin Pendleton, director Jack Hofsiss, Penny Fuller, et al). "I met her in 1964 at the Barter Theatre, where I started in the '60s and where she started in the '40s," crowed Glover. "She spoke to the gathering beautifully. Did you hear what Mike Nichols said? He said two of the best moments he'd ever seen on stage and screen were Elizabeth's — when she took the cigar out of George C. Scott's hand in Uncle Vanya and when she hugs the refrigerator when Dustin Hoffman tells her he's going to get married in 'The Graduate.'"
Ben McKenzie, present to support pal Glenn Davis, is contemplating a pass at New York theatre. "I'm doing another season of 'Southland' in the fall so I'll have a little bit of time on my hands," he said. "We'll see what happens. I did a play last year in L.A. at The Taper, the production that came from the Roundabout here with Judith Ivey and Patch Darragh. I was The Gentleman Caller."
There were a number of actor-director hyphenates among 'em: Guy Stroman, Bob Balaban, Walter Bobbie and Lonny Price. Balaban said he'll be back on Broadway next season, directing.
Also glittering: Jenn Colella (of the coming Lucky Guy); playwright Douglas Carter Beane (Sister Act) and his Tony-winning muse, Julie White (though not necessarily together); Tovah Feldshuh; "SNL" star Rachel Dratch; actress-producer Tamara Tunie and hubby, singer Gregory Generet; Nanette Burstein; Vanessa Nadal; comedienne-producer Jamie deRoy (in a splashy glow-green tiger-design jacket) with filmmaker Rick McKay; a gorgeous Grace Hightower; producer Judy Gordon with columnist Roger Friedman; producer Roy Miller; That Championship Season director Gregory Mosher; Exit the King's Susan Sarandon, hunting for another stage entrance ("I'd love to come back — that play spoiled me — but maybe a little more Off-, not so much on. There's not so much pressure Off-Broadway."); Colin Quinn, whose recent Long Story Short on Broadway will get longer on HBO, starting April 9; J.D. Williams; Brynn Thayer; Actors Studio's inside-man James Lipton; the creative trio of the upcoming Bring It On (book writer Jeff Whitty, lyricist Amanda Green and composer Lin-Manuel Miranda); Peter Asher; Jeff LaHoste; and ex-Shrek Brian d'Arcy James.
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