Actor Robin Williams on the set of his show "Bengal Tiger At The Baghdad… (Jennifer S. Altman / For…)
Reporting from New York — — Long before Robin Williams was in an Iraq war play, he was very close to the Iraq war.
Sitting in his dressing room at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, where he's making his Broadway debut as the talking tiger in Rajiv Joseph's Pulitzer Prize-nominated play "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo," the 59-year-old actor recalled his many trips to Baghdad to do stand-up for the troops stationed there. There was the day he rode a helicopter over the Arabian Sea and the night he slept in one of Saddam Hussein's palaces, a cheaply gold-plated former hunting lodge with marble walls that crumbled to the touch.
What Williams remembers most vividly, though, is the time he spent in a hospital with a soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. He won't discuss their conversation except to say that the experience was part of why he wanted to do "Bengal Tiger."
"The writing was so powerful," Williams says. "I felt like it was speaking to the experience of soldiers like him."
But accepting the role was a bigger responsibility than Williams initially imagined. The play refuses to spout an overt political message, underscoring instead the darkly comic nature of war. And Williams delivers its most brutal punch lines. In one scene, the tiger describes watching a little girl's skull get blown apart by a bomb. "The girl is no dummy, even if she does only have half a brain," he says, deadpan. Many nights, the audience gasps.
"I think a few people didn't know what they were getting into," he says during previews. Williams, who's decorated his dressing room with countless photos of tigers (and the famous DUI mug shot of the wild beast Nick Nolte), says, "The women would line up for the ladies' room, and you could hear them say" — he assumes the voice of an old New York woman — "'It's too dahhk! Where is the funny?'"
Williams' name appears on the marquee for "Bengal Tiger" to let audiences know that this isn't one of those humorless plays about the soul-crushing nature of war — this one has jokes about the soul-crushing nature of war.
During an initial run at the Center Theatre Group's Kirk Douglas Theatre in Los Angeles, and a later engagement at the Mark Taper Forum, actor Kevin Tighe played the tiger and the play earned critical acclaim for its savage wit. The Los Angeles Times' Charles McNulty called it "the most original drama written about the Iraq war."
After it was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, director Moisés Kaufman says he knew that Broadway was the next step — and he wanted a well-known comedian in the cast to convince people to see a fairly grave play in which a tiger gnaws off a soldier's arm, gets shot to death and roams the bombed-out city as a ghost, waxing existential about violence, innocence, the existence of God and the delicious taste of human flesh.
"There is so much absurdity in war that the play wouldn't have worked if it didn't have this ferocious humor," Kaufman says. "Robin gets the brutality, and he gets people to laugh at it, not in mockery, but in recognition."
Even the most critically acclaimed Iraq war plays have been a tough sell to mainstream theatergoers: Christopher Shinn's "Dying City" and the National Theatre of Scotland's "Black Watch" never quite made it to Broadway. Though "Bengal Tiger" has performed well enough at the box office, it probably would need Tony nominations and awards for a longer run. Knowing that the production would contend with the usual challenges faced by serious plays on Broadway, the remaining members of the Los Angeles cast welcomed Williams, even as they felt conflicted about seeing Tighe go.
"It's impossible for any Broadway show to survive without a star unless you have a nonprofit theater that can back you," says Arian Moayed, who has played an Iraqi translator in both the East and West Coast versions of the play. "And this play has the word 'Baghdad' in it. In tough economic and political times, the first thing people want to do is see a musical."
That's the paradox behind "Bengal Tiger": The production needed Robin Williams, but to serve the play, he couldn't really be Robin Williams — at least not the one most of America knows. There are no zany voices, no wild mugging, no bounding around in a tiger suit. Both on- and offstage, his tone is contemplative, and his performance has been widely praised as a model of restraint. Robin Williams isn't acting like himself — and critics love him for it.
"People forget that he's a Juilliard-trained actor," says Kaufman, who points out that Williams costarred in an off-Broadway production of "Waiting for Godot" with Steve Martin in 1988. "So when people say they're not seeing the real Robin Williams, to me, that's a testament to his craft."