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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

A dead tiger with an existential crisis who meets some haunted shrubbery? It sounds like the setup for a Monty Python sketch, not a serious drama about the Iraq War, and yet Rajiv Joseph's new play, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, at times feels like a little of both. Combining absurdism, comedy and Greek Tragedy, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is a work that is seriously funny.

Joseph's brand of comedy stresses the awkwardness of human interaction. His characters speak in a blunt vernacular that rings true and usually results in awkward silences. In last year's Off-Broadway success, Animals Out of Paper, Joseph's characters were origami artists who couldn't express themselves in words. Animals Out of Paper was a sad love triangle, but with a strong cast, the play sparkled with comedic moments that stemmed from real human situations and emotion rather than easy one-liners.

This is Rajiv Joseph's main strength as a writer, and it's very much in evidence in this new work that just debuted at the Kirk Douglas Theater. Instead of fumbling the rituals of dating, his characters in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo are unable to maneuver the rituals of survival or even basic sanity.

It's telling that the most stable and rational character in Joseph's play is a leper who lives in the desert outside of war-torn Baghdad. She's the only character who doesn't die or think of killing herself in the course of the play's two hours. Everyone else, including the Bengal tiger, who speaks crisp, proper English, is haunted, haunting, or both.

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo uses these elements of the supernatural — ghosts, talking animals — to amplify a point that so many of the recent crop of "Iraq War plays" miss: that war is not just hell, it's a hell that defies convention, our expectations, and possibly the laws of nature.

Rajiv Joseph's Bengal Tiger is arguably the first American play about Iraq that transcends the topicality of its subject. It's not an Iraq War play; it's a work of literature that happens to be set in Iraq. The writing it calls to mind is Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, a book that so dazzles you with its invention and post-modern prose that only at the end do you realize what a powerful statement it is about the effects of war.

Joseph, with his blending of the surreal and hyper-real, achieves a voice that almost as singular as Vonnegut; where it falls short is in the cumulative effect. Bengal Tiger is loosely structured and driven more by incident than genuine drama. Its vignettes are all captivating, but the play never really builds to any real climax or catharsis. As if aware of this, Joseph relies too often on the shock of stage blood gushing to make a point or end a scene.

However, these minor shortcomings are easy to overlook in this World Premiere production, expertly directed by Moisés Kaufman, mainly because the seven-actor ensemble is so strong. The key character is Musa, who creates animals not out of paper, but out of shrubbery. Played by Arian Moayed, this topiary artist represents the productive, modern Iraqi whose life has been wrecked twice: once by the Hussein regime and again by the U.S. Occupation. Moayed creates a believable, likeable but extremely vulnerable character. Kevin Tighe is commanding as the titular tiger, Glen Davis and Brad Fleischer are excellent as two U.S. soldiers in over their heads, and Hrach Titizan is casually menacing as the specter of Saddam's son, Uday Hussein, whose presence in the play is a reminder that this surreal ghost story is firmly grounded in our even more surreal history.

Rajiv Joseph's Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo continues through June 7 at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.


Banner image: Craig Schwartz

Slaughterhouse -Five

Kurt Vonnegut

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