Thursday, June 11, 2015

Guards at the Taj

Doug Hamilton

Rajiv Joseph's stunning heart-breaker of a play, Guards at the Taj, is currently running through the end of June at Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater. It is a beautiful production: crisply directed by Amy Morton, sumptuously lit by David Weiner, and superbly acted by Omar Metwally (Humayun) and Arian Moayed (Babur). I hope it gets extended, and I hope you get the chance to see it.

Guards at the Taj is similar to Joseph's Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo in its moody ruminations and its gently absurdist bent. But it is a smaller, more carefully constructed, and thus more emotionally satisfying affair: two characters, two sets, five brief and tautly constructed scenes. The show examines a few years in the lives of two (very) low-level imperial guards in Agra, India during the mid-1600s. Humayun and Babur are just as lost and yearning as many of the characters in Bengal Tiger were. But while that play felt looser and less cohesive, Taj zooms in on its characters' preoccupations, philosophies, emotional needs, strengths and weaknesses. Also, their lifelong friendship and love for one another, which is central to this play's warm, if also rather bloody, heart.

Guards at the Taj focuses on several interrelated themes: the nature and importance of beauty and of work; the ways rules, regulations, and social hierarchies can create both order and chaos; and the miraculous elasticity--but also the snapping point--of the closest of friendships. These big, meaty topics fold gracefully into a fluid whole, which is all the more impressive since what we're watching for most of the 90-minutes it takes for Taj to elapse are two buddies standing around and shooting the shit (often hilariously), in situations that are at best mind-numbingly boring, and at worst mind-bendingly traumatic.

Signs at the theater and on the Atlantic website warn potential audiences that Guards at the Taj "contains disturbing content that might not be suitable for all audiences." This is true, for what it's worth--there's one very bloody scene, and some violence. But in the end, that stuff is no big deal compared with the far more gently implied--and much more deeply unsettling--possibility that Humayun and Babur have, in the course of their deeply wrought friendship, managed to leave imprints of sorrow on one another's otherwise unfulfilled and unsatisfying lives.

It's exceedingly rare that I leave a theater wishing desperately to know more about what happens to the characters after the lights come up; even rarer that I continue to think about them for the rest of the evening and through much of the following day (I can let you know if I'm still thinking about them next week; I strongly suspect I will be.). But Humayun and Babur's connection--so profound, so engaging, so real--is also so exceptionally well-portrayed by Metwally and Moayed that I fell for them both. I can think of no higher complement, really: sad as I was to part ways with them after the curtain call, I sure was glad to have gotten the chance to meet them in the first place.

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