Two U.S. soldiers out of their depths in war-torn Baghdad, an Iraqi topiary artist-turned-translator for the coalition forces, the ghost of Uday Hussein (toting the decapitated head of his brother Qusay), a teenage prostitute wearing a disco head scarf, a friendly leper whose colony has been reduced to rubble, and a big cat that becomes a kind of moral philosopher after it's shot for biting the American hand that's trying to feed it.
No, it's not your ordinary dramatis personae, but then Rajiv Joseph's "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo," which had its world premiere Sunday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, is no ordinary play. I'm tempted to call it the most original drama written so far about the Iraq war, but why sell the work short? The imagination behind it is way too thrillingly genre-busting to be confined within such a limiting category.
An ebullient synthesizer of world data, Joseph is not just alert to the fevered geopolitical madness surrounding us, he's also endlessly inventive in finding bold theatrical metaphors to depict the extent of the depravity. "Bengal Tiger" marks the breakthrough of a major new playwriting talent. Attending the opening gave me a sense of what it must have been like to be in London when Caryl Churchill burst on the scene at the Royal Court in the 1970s. I'd like to find analogies closer to home, but it's not easy to come up with an American comparison whose liberated stage vocabulary similarly blends acute social commentary with tragicomic mayhem.
Before delving into the play, let's give some well-deserved credit to Moises Kaufman, whose direction allows us to appreciate both the wonderful comic audacity and diffuse sensitivity of Joseph's style.
Kaufman, a playwright himself (his "33 Variations" received a Tony nomination for best play this season), was an inspired choice. And his vibrant staging, which features atmospheric sets of Middle Eastern hues and accents by Derek McLane, and a versatile ensemble cast precisely locates Joseph's newfound theatrical ZIP Code.
"Bengal Tiger" begins shortly after the fall of Baghdad in 2003. Tom (Glenn Davis) and Kev (Brad Fleischer) are standing guard at, of all places, the Baghdad Zoo. American bombs have freed the lions, which quickly discover they're not the kings of this militarized jungle. A lone tiger (Kevin Tighe), grumbling and profane, recaps the recent chaos, as Tom shows off a golden gun he nabbed from Uday Hussein's Midas stash, which also included a priceless toilet seat that Tom plans to use as a post-Iraq annuity. "Sitting pretty on a gold toilet seat!" Kev parrots with slacker inanity.
Real-life absurdity outstrips anything a dramatist could come up with, but Joseph deploys these you've-got-to-be-kidding actualities with purposeful ingenuity. When Kev winds up shooting the tiger with the James Bond pistol after it mauls Tom, the animal steps out of its cage and enters into a limbo in which the meaninglessness of death is there to be meditated on the way Beckett's characters take up the irrationality of life. Joseph's play suggests that in the current age, the question isn't about finding the will to go on living but rather acquiring the stamina to contend with so much senseless dying.
The slaughtered tiger, a self-described "Dante in Hades," ends up haunting Kev, who's like a Cuisinart of American slang, pop culture and sentimentality. But there's another figure of even more predatory ferocity that refuses to stay buried. Musa (Arian Moayed), the military translator who used to majestically turn shrubbery into animal forms, is dogged by the ghost of Uday (Hrach Titizian), who raped and mutilated his sister, Hadia (Sheila Vand), as she was admiring her brother's artistry in the palace garden.
If there's any equivocation in my admiration for Joseph's handling of this extraordinarily daring field of characters, it has to do with the manner in which Musa's story -- the tale of an artistic soul trapped in a globally manufactured hell -- is brought to a resolution. Tired, he says, of serving tyrants -- first Uday, then the U.S. military -- he winds up in a standoff with Tom, who has returned to Iraq with a prosthetic hand and a determination to retrieve his plundered gold.
Tensions rise between the two men when Musa is asked to translate between Tom and a teen prostitute (also played by Vand). The scene awakens Musa's horrific memory of his sister's tragedy, but not even our existentialist feline can do more than blow hot air at a plot that's ultimately as lunatic as the occupying situation.
But don't let this dissuade you from experiencing this groundbreaking drama, which is animated by a top-notch cast with breathtaking vitality. Davis' slick yet not insensitive Tom, Fleischer's endearingly stupefied Kev, Titizian's debauchedly murderous Uday, and Moayed's grief-strafed Musa color in Joseph's portrait of a war zone that extends beyond the borders of one ravaged nation.
"Bengal Tiger" allows us to see the way the causes and consequences of modern brutality are as restless and far-ranging as any frequent-flier ghost.
'Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo'
Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Ends June 7.
Price: $20 to $45
Contact: (213) 628-2772
Running time: 2 hours