Straight Man

Originally published on March 6, 2011 | New York Theater | written by Craig Wolff

Robin Williams speed-dials his first Broadway role.

A smart-ass tiger, face to face with his sins, denying the existence of God but demanding he show himself -just in case- must reckon with this fact: He's just a tiger with a tiger's appetite. In the midst of chaos, can you blame him if he can't resist chomping into the stray human who comes too close? He's a tormented, sly-minded philosopher. It is tempting to say he shares the eyebrow-raised cunning of a Groucho Marx, but Groucho never knew a world this crazy.

It feels right, then, that of all God's creatures, it is Robin Williams who has been called upon to inhabit this particular -tiger- a tiger turned ghost, actually, roaming the ravaged streets of Baghdad-in Rajiv Joseph's first Broadway play, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. More than anything, what's needed here is a conjurer.

Standing in the center of a rehearsal studio, Williams summons the spirits. "Things just appear to me," he says, half-amused, a bit smug, a hand on one hip. "Knowledge, the stuff of the universe, it just sort of floats into me." Hands folded, humbled now. "Or maybe I'm floating into it." He spreads his arms. In surrender? Never. His voice, bound in terror and defiance, booms. "Why aren't I gone? Will someone please tell me why I'm not gone from here?"

Holding forth before the rest of the cast, director Moisés Kaufman, and Joseph, Williams finishes his monologue but is hardly finished. "When an atheist suddenly finds himself walking around after death," Williams begins, retrieving one of his lines for quick refining. "When an atheist ..." The curious Tiger. Then the snobbish Tiger. "When an atheist." Again. Bewildered. Prideful. Certain. He steps straight toward the actors, causing a few to flinch, suddenly becoming all of those things. "Yes, yes, yes!" says Kaufman. But his star is already back in the scene.

It is common, Kaufman tells me later, for an actor to prod and massage the text, but to do it in front of everyone else? "That's what's interesting," he says. "Actually, it's shocking." Williams is usually the first actor at rehearsal, churning through his monologues. The margins of his script are blackened with scrawled notes. "With Robin," says Joseph, "we see all that work happening right before our eyes, in a much faster way than I think is humanly possible."

The quietest part of Robin Williams may be his eyes. They are small, faintly blue, cheery-like the eyes of a tugboat captain in a children's book. How are you? Step aboard. Glad to have you. A brain that can careen from idea to idea and splice them together at breakneck speed is a mesmerizing thing. But were it not for this trace of serenity, he might not have endured.

It's nearly 33 years since Williams debuted his brand of supersonic comedy on the sitcom Mork & Mindy. Since then, he has demonstrated, too, a reserve of other characters, lonesome and searching-Garp, Will Hunting's mournful counselor, the kindly Dr. Sayer in Awakenings. It remains something of a puzzle, despite an Oscar and three other nominations, why these performances are somehow overlooked when he takes on a new dramatic part-as with this first acting role on Broadway, which begins previews on Friday. The talk has already begun: Williams won't be able to play it straight. The mad scientist of improv will roam from the script. He will use his deep well of voices and personalities as crutches. "It's like this woman who came up to me in an airport and said, 'Be zany,'" says Williams. "Sometimes I take a picture with people, and they say smile. This is me smiling. They want a big, goofy smile, like, Ahhhhhhhh."

He recalls this without bitterness over a plate of cheese blintzes at Cafe Edison, a few hours before a noon rehearsal. "You get labeled the riff master, the motormouth. Do I do that sometimes? Yeah. But other times ... Buddha said, 'Just because you call me that, am I that?'"

Williams has a beard now, mostly gray. He has blended back into New York, where he came to attend Juilliard in 1973, studying the classics with Robert Neff Williams, dance and movement with Anna Sokolow, and mask with Pierre Lefèvre. He is staying in a large apartment not far from where he lived as a student at 78th and Riverside. His landlord then was a piano teacher who Williams suspected beat his wife. He later moved to 76th Street, to a brownstone that had housed the American Nazi Party. He ordered cheeseburgers from a diner at Columbus and 72nd.

In July, Williams turns 60. It's been two years since surgery to replace his aortic valve. He has fought cocaine addiction and alcoholism, experiences that have worked their way into his comedy, but only glancingly. George Carlin and Richard Pryor, who both fought addictions, were more "straight up and raw," says Williams, sounding a touch thankful that his bottom was not as low as Pryor's. "Richard was too sensitized," he says, "like a hemophiliac in a razor factory."

Williams's stand-up work, on the other hand, skims over heartache. It's the dramatic roles that allow him to draw more deeply from his own emotions. "I can use all that pain, but with kind of a buffer."

And sometimes it's the pain of others. Over the past nine years, Williams has turned into a modern-day Bob Hope, without the golf club, visiting troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. Since performing on an outdoor stage would create a target for enemy fire, he often meets with soldiers as they are leaving or returning from long patrols, or in army hospitals filled with men missing arms and legs. In one ward, he met a young soldier with unfocused eyes. "What are you here for?" Williams asked. A nurse appeared at the soldier's elbow. "He's here to relax," she said, code for post-traumatic-stress disorder. "Yeah," the soldier said. "I'm taking it easy now."

These experiences mimic the dark visions of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, which takes place in an Iraq beset with soldiers killing and ransacking for reasons they cannot name. It's not so much a polemic against the Iraq War as a look at the sordid repercussions of all war. Living in New York, he says, has helped him find the Tiger's snarling and grousing.

At today's rehearsal, the Tiger mutters angrily about feasting on the weak, the small, and the young. Williams momentarily breaks character: "What am I, the Statue of Liberty?" The rest of the cast-all of them much younger-laughs hard, grateful for a measure of relief. It doesn't last long; seconds later, they are still again. Now it's just raw emotion, and if there's a buffer, only Williams sees it. "A dead cat consigned to this burning city doesn't seem just," the Tiger cries. "But here I am."


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