The Existential Predator: 'Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo' and 'The Other Place'

First things first: Robin Williams on a Broadway stage, which is to say Robin Williams as a Broadway actor, which is more precisely to say Robin Williams not playing Robin Williams, is–and, when you think about it, this shouldn’t be such a surprise–pretty damned good.

The free-associative comic and manic movie star, who is also the owner of an Academy Award, for Good Will Hunting, and a Juilliard degree, is making his Broadway debut in Rajiv Joseph’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, an ambitious and intelligent–if not entirely convincing–play about the chaos, both emotional and physical, surrounding the Iraq war that opened last Thursday at the Richard Rodgers Theatre.

Mr. Williams plays the titular tiger–or, really, the ghost of that titular tiger, haunting the streets of a dysfunctional Baghdad after he’s shot by an over-adrenalized American soldier in the first scene. He’s a foul-mouthed philosopher, a thinker and talker, given to witty and discursive contemplation about life, God, existence and his own tigery nature. (So maybe Mr. Williams isn’t playing entirely against type.)

“What if my every meal is an act of cruelty?” he wonders at one point. “What if my very nature is in direct conflict with the moral code of the universe?”

The play focuses on a pair of soldiers–Tom (Glenn Davis), whose hand is bitten off by the tiger and returns to Iraq with a prosthetic, and Kev (Brad Fleischer), full of testosterone and gung-ho enthusiasm, who shoots the tiger, suffers a breakdown and then kills himself–and an Iraqi translator they work with, Musa (Arian Moayed), a traumatized former gardener for Uday Hussein, Saddam’s son.

While the tiger does most of the play’s existential heavy lifting (or, at least, does it most loquaciously) each one of the characters–including Uday (Hrach Titizian)–is damaged. Everyone is haunted, not just by the dead characters, who remain wandering Baghdad, imbued with new knowledge and insights, but also by history. They’re all driven by forces and compulsions they can’t control: the macho but terrified Americans; the humiliated and enraged Iraqi; the charmingly psychotic Uday; and of course the tiger, vicious but caged, sure of his power but guilty about using it, a metaphor for America.

The whimsy with which this material is presented–verbal flights of fancy about terrible violence, talking tigers, a range of moral questions asked but rarely answered–is both the play’s strength and its weakness. Bengal Tiger is an Iraq war play that is, refreshingly, not a simple jeremiad against the war; it’s a political play that doesn’t pretend to know the political answers. It’s an impressionistic play gorgeously and impressionistically staged by Moisés Kaufman, with matching sets–a wisp of a palace here, an overgrown topiary there–by Derek McLane and beautiful, moody lighting by David Lander. And it has an excellent cast.

But for all the lovely writing displayed and all the horrors portrayed, Bengal Tiger feels emotionally distant. Mr. Joseph–whose Gruesome Playground Injuries, at the Second Stage Theatre earlier this year, was visceral and haunting–here remains removed from his characters, reaching for poetry. The audience, too, is never fully drawn in. We are intrigued, but we are never invested.

Sharr White’s The Other Place, which opened early last week in an MCC Theater production at the Lucille Lortel, is almost the opposite of Bengal Tiger: direct instead of ironic, brutally realist, more than a touch melodramatic, but still emotionally raw and deeply powerful.

It’s a family drama about a brilliant and domineering research scientist-turned-pharmaceutical pitchwoman named Juliana who suffers what she terms “an episode” while addressing a conference and subsequently does battle with her oncologist husband, her doctor and herself as they all struggle to determine what’s gone wrong. There’s also an estranged daughter, a beloved beach house (that “other place”) and what may or may not be a crumbling marriage–enough drama stacked atop Juliana’s crisis to run the risk of turning The Other Place soap-operatic.

But it doesn’t, thanks to Joe Mantello’s fast-paced and intense direction and Laurie Metcalf’s amazing performance in the lead role. Juliana narrates her own story, and so we watch from inside her head as she untangles what’s happened; we’re left to process with her what’s true and what’s imagined, what’s remembered and what’s invented.

Ms. Metcalf is ferocious and her Juliana devastating, both wounding and wounded as she wrestles with the fear and uncertainty of brain illness. It’s a performance reminiscent of Jan Maxwell’s as a stroke victim in Wings last fall, and it’s equally gripping.

The Existential Predator: 'Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo' and 'The Other Place'