Kareem Bandealy and Anish Jethmalani in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo
Kareem Bandealy and Anish Jethmalani in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo Credit: Liz Lauren

On the evening of September 18, 2003, about six months after the start of the war in Iraq, an American soldier shot and killed a Bengal tiger at the city zoo in Baghdad. The Army was hosting a barbecue designed to boost morale, and the zoo was chosen as the setting even though, thanks to war and looting, it had become what one reporter described as a “decrepit collection of dirty cages and sad-looking animals.”

At the party, a sergeant decided to feed the tiger and ended up with a severely mauled right arm. Then the tiger ended up dead, shot by another soldier. The incident sparked an outcry across the globe, serving for many as a symbol of our recklessness during the invasion. (The Abu Ghraib photos hadn’t yet come to light, so we didn’t know that things were actually much worse.) The story inspired Rajiv Joseph’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, a 2010 Pulitzer Prize finalist now onstage at Lookingglass Theatre Company.

It’s easy to see what sparked Joseph’s interest. The incident paints a vivid and poignant picture of what life must have been like in Baghdad during the early days of the war: violent, chaotic, and surreal, with looters running rampant and the invading forces—not to mention the administration that sent them—shooting first and asking questions later.

Joseph’s script specifies that the title cat should talk and act like a human. In the 2011 Broadway production, the part was played by Robin Williams; Troy West takes it on in the Lookingglass version and gets about as far from Williams’s manic energy as you can while staying awake. Sporting a white, leonine beard and costumed in jeans and a tan safari jacket, West occupies his cage with an air of resignation and weary scorn. It’s difficult to imagine him summoning the energy to pounce on anything, but there’s something believably feline about the generalized contempt he projects.

When we first see the tiger, he’s being guarded by Tom (Walter Owen Briggs) and Kev (JJ Phillips), two U.S. soldiers on “zoo duty.” The cat is cool and sardonic, the men jumpy and erratic. When Tom tries to feed the animal a Slim Jim through the bars of his cage, he gets his hand bitten off, and Kev promptly shoots the beast. “You get hungry, you get stupid, you get shot and die,” the tiger says in summation. “And then it’s over. Curtains. Ka-boom.”

Trouble is, these lines are spoken about ten minutes into a play that lasts more than two hours. The admirable qualities on display in Joseph’s first scene—tautness, economy, the unique perspective on war offered by a predator in captivity—also go ka-boom and are seen only in fits and starts for the remainder of the evening.

With time to fill, Joseph turns his attention to Tom, Kev, and their interpreter, Musa (Anish Jethmalani). Kev suffers a nervous breakdown during a night raid and eventually kills himself. Sent home after the attack, Tom is outfitted with a prosthetic hand and implausibly returned to Iraq, where he spends most of his time trying to track down a gold-plated gun and a solid-gold toilet seat taken from one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces. He figures he can sell them on eBay.

Musa, meanwhile, is being haunted by the ghost of Saddam’s son, Uday (played with relish by Kareem Bandealy), a conscience-free sadist who once employed him as a gardener. Musa’s elaborate topiary animals provide the only glimpses of beauty in Daniel Ostling’s otherwise bleak set, suggesting that artistic creation is our only hope against the forces of destruction.

As for the tiger, he also becomes a ghost. In fact, by the end, the Baghdad is “lousy” with specters, as he puts it. Consigned to a godless afterlife, he takes to wandering through the charred city streets and wondering what it all means. Though he’s retained his appetite—at one point we see him gnawing on a rabbit carcass—he now sounds like a sophomore-year philosophy major. “See, all my life,” he says, “I’ve been plagued, as most tigers are, by this existential quandary: Why am I here? But now … I’m dead, I’m a ghost … and it’s: Why aren’t I gone?

Good question. A preponderance of spirits is a good metaphor not only for the great number of dead that wars generate, but also for the fruitlessness of attempting to erase the past through “regime change.” Yet the dead overpower the living in Joseph’s play, leaving it in a zombified state, drained of urgency and purpose.

As if aware of the problem, director Heidi Stillman seizes on any scene with a pulse, staging it with a keyed-up, almost frenzied intensity and generous helpings of stage blood. Briggs and Phillips likewise fill their scenes with ragged screams and bulging neck veins. But it’s a losing battle in a play that feels like one long coda.