The biggest mistake “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” makes is granting an intermission.
Offering one gives people a chance to escape. And flee they did from the Richard Rodgers Theatre.
Not everyone, of course. People pay too much for Broadway tickets to write off the investment. And they want to see Robin Williams, who stars.
Williams is excellent, but not reason enough to suffer through two hours of polemics.
Williams is Tiger, though — at least — not in costume. He’s not a paper tiger or a symbolic tiger, but supposedly a real tiger, in dirty clothes and bearded. The play opens with him trapped in a cage. Two boorish Marines, Kev and Tom (Brad Fleischer and Glenn Davis), guard the Baghdad Zoo where Tiger paces in a bomb-damaged cage.
Tom nudges Tiger, knowing the beast is hungry, and pokes him with a Slim Jim. Tiger bites off Tom’s hand and Kevin fatally shoots Tiger. This happens early, so for the rest of the play Robin Williams is a dead existential tiger on a philosophical quest.
Not weird enough? Wait. There is a leper in the desert, a decapitated head in a bag, topiary animals, a suicide scene, brutality from Iraqis and Americans, a drawn-out scene about a sexual act, and descriptions of torture.
Art need not be unicorns and fairies, though it should make us uncomfortable and make us think — especially when it comes to war. It just should not make two hours feel like two weeks.
What makes Williams a star is he’s funny and he commands a stage, which is good because it’s only when he is in the spotlight that “Bengal” struggles to life. For about 30 seconds in the second act, Tiger does a Williams riff with a half-eaten carcass. And the audience, starved for anything to break the relentless grimness, cheers.
It was such a brief moment.
The rest of the time, we are reminded — as we should be — about the hideous effects of war.
Kev is a cartoon, an American with a country accent — uneducated and hopelessly ignorant. Until, of course, he commits suicide. Dead, he can speak Arabic and understand higher mathematical concepts. He sliced open his veins (this production is fond of fake blood) because Tiger haunts him. Only he can see Tiger. Only he can hear Tiger.
Unfortunately the audience can hear everyone.
So we have one Marine who had his hand chomped off, but returns to collect his booty. Tom looted one of Hussein’s palaces and will not rest until he recovers the gold gun and the gold toilet seat he had stolen.
Kev, a leper who lost her hands, a youngster who was raped and Uday, Hussein’s masochistic son — all dead — wander though Baghdad.
“This place is lousy with ghosts,” Tiger says. “New ones are inevitably asking, ‘Where am I?’ You are dead in Baghdad.”
Tiger and others search for God. Much of the dialogue — often it feels like every sentence — is punctuated with “f***,” which would be fine if it worked. It can be a versatile word. Or it can fall flat.
Are there bullying American soldiers? Did the war cleave families and destroy Baghdad? Was Hussein’s family corrupt? Absolutely. Is Baghdad full of ghosts? Maybe. Should people devote two hours of their lives to this? Not on a dare.