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David Finkle

David Finkle

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First Nighter: Robin Williams Broadway-Bows in Rajiv Joseph's Toothless Play

Posted: 03/31/11 10:49 PM ET

Robin Williams, the brilliantly quick-witted and often seemingly troubled entertainer, has made his Broadway debut at last. This is a very good thing. The very bad thing is that he arrives in Rajiv Joseph's Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, a decidedly third-rate work that was short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize last year, probably for its dealing -- however awkwardly -- with the Iraq war and the myriad post-traumatic-stress-syndrome cases it's caused for participants and, in a larger context, for the United States and the world.

The difficulty starts when the intricate show scrim a the Richard Rodgers Theatre lifts on designer Derek McLane's stunning notion of a damaged Baghdad palace and Williams is revealed grousing, pacing and looking portly in a partially damaged cage. His silly-putty face is framed with a shock of graying hair and a full beard. Confronted with it, the astute spectator immediately wonders why -- if the Great White Way newcomer is meant to be impersonating an aging tiger -- he looks so much like an old lion, so like George Bernard Shaw's thorn-freed Androcles companion in his dotage.

Immediately the question arises as to what's the thinking behind an enterprise directed by the usually savvy Moisés Kaufman? Somewhat muddled is the answer, as the play unfolds and Williams forges on, portraying a hungry leonine tiger who bites off the hand of taunting soldier Tom (Glenn Davis) and is shot on the spot by soldier Kev (Brad Fleischer), quick on the trigger to protect his comrade. (FYI: Joseph has based his opus on a true story.)

Subsequently, the deceased tiger begins roaming Baghdad streets as a ghost, significantly haunting Kev -- and setting off a series of additional hauntings. You see, Kev, unable to dismiss the tiger-ghost, dies when attempting to sever his hand in an act of atonement. As a consequence, guilt-ridden Tom of the purloined pistol is visited not only by Kev's ghost but also by the ghost of Uday Hussein (Hrach Titizian), the Saddam Hussein son he murdered in order to steal a gold gun the corrupt scion carried. As the ghosts proliferate, at least one of them--this is a development for The After-Life Annals -- is haunting another ghost. And, by the way, Uday carries the head of his dead brother Qusay in a plastic bag. Is he guiltily haunted by it? Must be.

Other credibility-stretching developments -- at least in this context -- include one leper and one lengthy scene in which Tom, now wearing a prosthetic replacement for his chewed right hand, strong-arms (forgive the pun) Turkish translator Musa (Arian Moayed) to explain a sexual need requiring the use of a healthy right hand to a non-English-speaking prostitute (Sheila Vand). Some of these digressions take place among several large topiary animals, which are translator Musa's true passion as a gardener.

For much more of the narrative than anyone might have imagined when looking forward to Williams's debut, he's cooling his tiger's heels off-stage. When he returns at the second-act get-go, he spouts a sentence with which on-lookers might be inclined to agree -- "This stage is lousy with ghosts!" (You can say that again.) Towards the end of the piece, Williams gets the chance to issue more than one (unfortunately sophomoric) rant against a god who allows such wholesale devastation -- the looming, war-torn topiary an added metaphor for Baghdad's dire conditions. He even wishes such an absent deity could be caged and mocked the way animals merely following their nature often are when confined in zoos.

At these chores, Williams does his best and certainly reins in (undoubtedly with Kaufman's help) his standard manic behavior. But he can do nothing to improve a script that doesn't provide him with a constantly evolving character. Indeed, he's surrounded by three figures -- Tom, Kev, Musa -- who do go through soul-crushing changes, with powerful actors Davis, Fleischer and Moayed maximizing their opportunities.

Perhaps Williams's most appealing trait in the circumstances is his generosity towards his fellow thesps. There is one more thing to say in his favor, which is that he shows he belongs on a stage. (In 1988, he appeared, of course, with Steve Martin in Mike Nichols's Waiting for Godot production at Lincoln Center's off-Broadway Mitzi E. Newhouse.) Curiously, his girth and all that flaring hair and beard suggest that a perfect part awaits for whenever he chooses to do it and whenever a few smart producers opt to back him at it. To the life, he's a Falstaff for any of Shakespeare's Henry entries and/or for The Merry Wives of Windsor.

As to playwright Joseph -- who's been lucky enough to snare a marquee-enhancing star for a piece that wouldn't otherwise be where it is and which truly does nothing to illuminate the Iraq situation -- there's another of his plays, Animals Out of Paper, that incorporates mammals and is a genuine winner. The protagonist in that one is a woman who's a whiz at origami. Would that Joseph had been able to fold -- and unfold -- this one nearly as well as he has his heroine manipulate the malleable materials of that one.