There’s nothing feline about Robin Williams, who plays the title role in “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.”
Prowling a cage twisted from bombing, his graying beard and hair are in dire need of pruning and his clothes -- union shirt, pants and vest -- appear to have been liberated from a trash bin. Nevertheless, he’s alive and proud of the fact.
“The lions escaped two days ago,” he says through the bars as two American Marine guards make small-talk about the war. “Predictably, they got killed in about two hours. Everybody gives lions too much credit. But I am bigger than them.”
The Baghdad zoo and its environs, ravaged by the war, signify a lost Eden in Rajiv Joseph’s haltingly powerful drama, a Pulitzer Prize finalist last year that has come to Broadway with the hopeful draw of a marquee name above the title.
Soon the loquacious, starving tiger also will be dead. When one of the soldiers offers him some beef jerky, the animal tears his hand off and is promptly dispatched by the second Marine.
But he doesn’t disappear; he simply goes on as a ghost in a city of the dead.
It’s 2003 and “Bengal Tiger” is as much about the spirits prowling this devastated city as it is about the living. The soldiers -- played with gruff sincerity by Glenn Davis and Brad Fleischer -- employ a gardener as their fixer, the local who serves as translator and amanuensis.
Musa (Arian Moayed, in a performance of tremulous emotional persuasion) is a topiary artist. His greatest creation is a small park populated by a giraffe, an elephant and most hauntingly, a horse. They’re all dying too, from lack of care.
“Cruelty echoes all around me, even in this ruined garden,” the tiger says. He is leading into a scene in which Musa’s young sister (Sheila Vand) is led away to be raped and murdered by his employer, Uday Hussein (Hrach Titizian). Uday returns not much later with a plastic bag holding the head of his equally murderous brother Qusay.
As it happens, one of the Marines was present at the assault on the brothers’ palace. His treasured souvenirs include a gold-plated hand gun and a gold toilet seat.
The parallel lives of Musa and the two Marines he works for come together in that garden which, like Iraq itself, seems unsalvageable. Commenting on all of it is the tiger, heard only by us. Williams occasionally falls back on familiar shtick but mostly he’s a funny, skeptical guide through the chaos.
Moises Kaufman has staged the play with considerable restraint (despite the fact that the male actors tend, incomprehensibly, to be yelling much of the time). David Lander’s pinpoint lighting throws the players and Derek McLane’s minimalist settings into chiaroscuro tableaux vivants of light and dark, most appropriately.
“This place is lousy with ghosts,” the tiger says, speaking truth.
At the Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 W. 46th St. Information: +1-877-250-2929; http://www.bengaltigeronbroadway.com. Rating: ***
This weekend is your last chance to attend one of the weirdest, most remarkable performance pieces I’ve ever seen.
The unlikely venue is the tony Park Avenue cabaret Feinstein’s at the Regency. Singer-songwriter Nellie McKay’s roots are in jazz and her voice is one of clarion beauty. She approaches the small stage and sings an upbeat fragment from Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.”
She’s introduced as Barbara Graham, the dubious heroine of “I Want to Live!” the 1958 film that won Susan Hayward an Oscar as one of the few women to die in California’s gas chamber. McKay shifts effortlessly from the mock upbeat lull of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” and Irving Berlin’s “Isn’t It a Lovely Day” to a spine-tingling version of “April Showers.”
McKay is accompanied by an outstanding jazz quartet and occasionally pulls out her ukulele as well. She never drops character, turning us into voyeurs at a decidedly noirish encounter.
Through April 2 at 540 Park Ave. Information: +1-212-339-4095; http://www.feinsteinsattheregency.com. Rating: ****
What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Very Good ** Average * Not So Good (No stars) Avoid
(Jeremy Gerard is an editor and critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)