Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo -- Theater Review

Benjamin Walker
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 13:  Actor Benjamin Walker attends the "Bloody Bloody Jackson" opening night after party at Brasserie 8 1/2 on October 13, 2010 in New York City.

The terrifying dimensions of human experience in Baghdad during the dog days of the Iraq War as caught by Rajiv Joseph's "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" could well have set off the earthquake that jolted Los Angeles on the play's opening night. The writing is beautiful, the bilingual acting is strong and moving, the pacing is taught and thrilling, and the outcome is as dark as night.

The story follows the interconnected lives of a collection of soldiers, despots and victims. The Zoo in Baghdad is being bombed, and some non-human predators have gotten loose, as well as one old mangy tiger.

As the play proceeds, two American soldiers, whose emotional fragility is matched only by their naivete and unsuitability for anything except killing, hysterically seek a moral high road that will sanction their killing and ease their pain. Glenn Davis and Brad Fleischer fully understand that these men must at no time leave any room for the audience's sympathy, and yet playwright Joseph does not seem to want them to ignite its rage. So they go over the top, with courage and bravery and humor, to show what men look like as they emotionally explode.

The ghost of one of Saddam Hussein's sons, implacably violent, hateful and rich, is played by Hrach Titizian with a terrible sneer, who takes the audience as far has he dares in fleshing out the details of his foul deeds. In a richly eloquent performance, Arin Moayed plays an urban survivalist desperately fighting for his life and the courage to stand up and be counted, hopelessly seeking light in absolute chaos.

There is a succession of outstanding roles for women, including a virgin raped, a prostitute and a leper. In each case, subtly fashioned performances mask repressed rage, unimaginable suffering and a fear at even further loss of self under the continuing ravages of war.

If the play were not already memorable, Kevin Tighe takes "Tiger" to a higher level, using a Will Rogers type of charm to express the overwhelming depth of resignation he must suffer as he seeks death and absolution for what he has come to believe is enormous, universal guilt. Occasionally Tighe turns to the audience, with the hint of a twinkle in his eye, spacing out for a moment before he delivers a folksy, philosophical punch line just in time, and the play goes on.

Director Moises Kaufman, who makes the extraordinary sequence of events move seamlessly without once sacrificing emotional depth, is backed by an impressively geeky production, with lots of mechanical and electrical ingenuity, and hints of computers gone mad. And just to make the transport process to another time and place complete, Derek McLane's sets miraculously seduce the Douglas stage into killing zones one moment and gardens of the former potentate the next.

Venue: Kirk Douglas Theatre, Center Theatre Group, Culver City (Through June 7)
Cast: Glenn Davis, Brad Fleischer, Arian Moayed, Kevin Tighe, Hrach Titizian, Sheila Vand, Necar Zadegan
Writer: Rajiv Joseph
Director: Moises Kaufman
Scenic designer: Derek McLane
Costume designer: David Zinn
Lighting designer: David Lander
Sound designer: Cricket S. Myers
Composer: Kathryn Bostic
Fight director: Bobby C. King
Casting: Bonnie Grisan