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 Moises 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.”
Even when he’s not performing, Williams seems more quiet than one would expect, only occasionally breaking into a funny accent or risque penguin joke, and even then, doing it almost apologetically, as if he knows that’s what you came for but he’s just not up for it tonight. Since he had open heart surgery last year — doctors replaced a valve with a bovine valve — he admits that he’s more openly emotional. “It almost literally cracks your armor,” he says.
He seems a little sad, especially when he talks about opening night.
“They opened the curtains, and you know that part where the star walks out and everybody claps? Well, nobody clapped,” Williams recalls. “That just set the mood, like, all right, that’s just how it’s going to be.”
Still, that ability to be vulnerable — even when people are expecting him to be this manic, free-associating wind-up toy of a man — is what makes Williams right for this play, Kaufman says. “It’s a dialogue between our primal selves and our spiritual selves,” Kaufman says. “It captures what’s animal within us, but it also has this great sense of humanity and a broad range of emotion. And Robin gets all of that.”
Plus, Williams makes the story feel personal. “He’s been there,” Kaufman says. “He’s gone to the hospitals and talked to the soldiers, and he knows that it’s easy to care for the physical wounds but the psychological ones take much longer to heal. And the play deals with those psychological repercussions.”
Sometimes, when Williams delivers the final monologue in the play — a devastating scene in which the tiger asks God, “If you think killing people is wrong, then why did you make us predators?” — he still thinks of the soldier he met in the hospital. And apparently, he’s not the only one for whom difficult memories are triggered during that scene.
“Last night, when I did it, this woman in the front row burst out crying,” Williams says. “I had to make it through that scene with her just sobbing the whole time.” He lets out a long, slow breath. “That was rough. It was rough for me too. But we got through it.”