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In 2009, playwright Rajiv Joseph brought his bizarrely original Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo to the Center Theatre Group before taking it to Broadway where Robin Williams starred as the big cat of the title, wandering the war-torn Iraqi capital in an existential crisis. Shortlisted for a Pulitzer, the play represented a breakthrough for the young writer, whose reputation for imaginative storytelling grew further with 2015’s Guards at the Taj. His latest, Archduke, is about the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, which ignited World War I, but despite witty dialogue and the prodigious comedic talent of Patrick Page as a blustery military officer, the uneven new play isn’t quite at the level of its predecessors.
When we first meet Gavrilo Princep (Stephen Stocking), the 20-year-old peasant is being diagnosed in the office of Dr. Leko (Todd Weeks) with tuberculosis. The scene is quintessential Joseph — hilarity tinged with horror as the patient is more concerned with bloodying the doctor’s handkerchief than he is with dying. His distress arises not from his own cruel fate, but from the indignity of a skeleton standing in the office, somehow worsened by the fact that it once belonged to a woman.
In time, Gavrilo and two others, Nedeljko (Josiah Bania) and Trifko (Ramiz Monsef), are recruited by Captain Dragutin ‘Apis‘ Dimitrijevic (Page) to alleviate the “suffocating grip of Austro-Hungary” on his beloved Serbia. Apis is a blowhard, a bully and a fool, but still smarter than his three recruits, all of them mortally ill, presumably with nothing to lose. They rehearse a plan to assassinate the archduke and his wife, Duchess Von Hohenberg, as Apis tries to win them over with the prospect of martyrdom and a chance at immortality, concepts the trio find vaguely alluring but unconvincing. Instead, handguns and one-way tickets to Sarajevo, items they have never held in their short lives, seal the deal.
The laughs of the first act can be attributed not just to Joseph’s rhythmic, offbeat humor, but to the impeccable timing of director Giovanna Sardelli and an outstanding cast led by Broadway veteran Page. His Apis exudes an absurd sense of self-importance, exceeded only by the hapless naivete of his recruits.
But the amusement begins to wane when the curtain rises on the second act and we find Gavrilo with a broken arm, attended by Dr. Leko. Even injured, he remains committed to the cause, boarding the train to Sarajevo with the others, all three buzzing with anticipation and impressed by the luxury of their surroundings. (Set designer Tim Mackabee did the lavish sleeper car.)
By this point, Archduke ought to be building to the climactic assassination, but instead the boys are having second thoughts. They weigh the merits of a good sandwich versus the pleasures of a brothel (they’re virgins), and ruminate on how the invention of the railroad has made the world smaller. But Joseph’s theme of coming of age reflecting historical transition becomes muddled. The idea of World War I symbolizing the end of innocence, plunging civilization from the relative unworldliness of the 19th century into the chaos that followed, is only vaguely explored.
Although all three actors playing Gavrilo and his cohorts deliver distinctive characterizations, Page, the comedic engine of the play, is sorely missed in the late stages. Joanne McGee, as Apis’ wise but cantankerous old servant, augments the laughs with her clever asides, and playing the medic, Weeks helps balance the ensemble as the voice of reason sorely outweighed by Apis’ epic ego and unyielding obstinacy.
Venue: Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles
Cast: Josiah Bania, Joanne McGee, Ramiz Monsef, Patrick Page, Stephen Stocking, Todd Weeks
Director: Giovanna Sardelli
Playwright: Rajiv Joseph
Set designer: Tim Mackabee
Costume designer: Denitsa Bliznakova
Lighting designer: Lap Chi Chu
Music and sound designer: Daniel Kluger
Presented by Center Theatre Group
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