Star Power Meets War's Firepower

Originally published on March 23, 2011 | New York Times | written by Patrick Healy

How to turn the bloody truths of the Iraq war into mass entertainment is a problem that has repeatedly bedeviled Hollywood executives. Even "The Hurt Locker," which won the Academy Award for best picture last year, earned only $17 million domestically. Now Broadway, where the price of a ticket can be 10 times as much as at the multiplex, is taking its first major look at Iraq eight years after the invasion, with a play that starts with a behanding, descends into brutality and murder, and features no less than Uday Hussein clutching the severed head of his brother, Qusay.

"Driving Miss Daisy" it isn't. Nor is it the sort of familiar fare that commercial producers usually pick to reflect on wartime, like "South Pacific," "All My Sons" or "Macbeth." No, Rajiv Joseph's "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" is the first play on Broadway since David Rabe's Vietnam trilogy in the 1970s directly to confront the ruthlessness of war and the fallout for all sides involved.

To break even, the producers of the $3 million "Bengal Tiger" need to sell at least half of their 1,356 seats per show. They are pursuing a strategy that is two-thirds modern Broadway and one-third audacious bet: Match a critically acclaimed script with an Academy Award-winning actor - Robin Williams - then roll the dice and hope that a walking, talking tiger in the Green Zone will provide an artistic escape from Libya's civil war and Japan's nuclear crisis.

"This is, to put it mildly, a little different for Broadway," said Jeffrey Richards, a prolific theater producer who is not involved with "Bengal Tiger." "Everyone is town is curious if this show can succeed."

A crop of plays and musicals about war have come in since 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan, though many have been relegated to small Off Broadway houses. At least two plays that touched on the Iraq war, Christopher Shinn's "Dying City" and the National Theater of Scotland's "Black Watch," initially drew some interest from commercial Broadway producers. Some satires that challenged the Bush administration were popular with audiences and critics, including David Hare's "Stuff Happens" and Christopher Durang's "Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them." But none went to Broadway. ("Black Watch" is returning for a third time to St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn on April 14.)

"Bengal Tiger," a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in drama, portrays the occupation with a mix of harsh realism and surrealist philosophizing. Iraqi characters speak in Arabic, guns are the main props, explosions pass for background music. Yet the play is also largely populated by ghosts, starting with that tiger, played by Mr. Williams in his Broadway acting debut. Slaughtered in the first scene, the tiger spends the play profanely raging against God and nagging the living and the dead to help him make sense of war-torn humanity.

Written by Mr. Joseph ("Gruesome Playground Injuries") and directed by Moisés Kaufman ("The Laramie Project"), "Bengal Tiger" would not have had a chance at a commercial life on today's Broadway if not for Mr. Williams. The play's lead producer, Robyn Goodman, said the production drew interest from investors during its two widely praised runs in Los Angeles, in 2009 and 2010, which starred a relatively unknown actor, Kevin Tighe, as the tiger. But no one committed a dollar until Ms. Goodman signed Mr. Williams for a limited run in New York, now in preview performances.

"This was the best play I'd read since 'Angels in America,' but I knew it would be virtually impossible to get audiences for an Iraq war play without a star," said Ms. Goodman, who is producing the play with Kevin McCollum and Jeffrey Seller, her partners on the Tony Award-winning musical "In the Heights."

"On several levels the tiger is the audience's way into the events of the play," Ms. Goodman added, "and there's an advantage to having a well-liked star with whom the audience builds a relationship."

In the 1960s and '70s - before 500 cable channels and the Internet - Broadway was a place where American culture, politics and taboos were explored, from domestic dramas like "A Raisin in the Sun" and "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" to sobering musicals like "Hair" and "Company." David Rabe, a Vietnam veteran, made it to Broadway in the 1970s with each part of his trilogy about soldiers coming to grips with the war; the plays won Tonys for Al Pacino, Elizabeth Wilson and Mr. Rabe.

But war-theme plays have had a hard time finding an audience on Broadway recently.

"Time Stands Still," a drama last year about a war photographer (played by Laura Linney) adjusting to civilian life in Brooklyn, earned strong reviews but did not recoup the full capitalization for its commercial run. The last battlefield play on Broadway, the 2007 mounting of the World War I drama "Journey's End," also drew raves and won the Tony for best revival yet closed relatively quickly without recouping. The World War II drama "Irena's Vow" flopped in 2009 as well.

And "Ruined," Lynn Nottage's play about the plight of women during the Congolese civil war, won the Pulitzer in 2009 and nearly every drama award, yet still could not attract the commercial money for a Broadway run. Yet in an interview on Monday Lynne Meadow of the nonprofit Manhattan Theater Club, where the play ran nearly nine months, said she might mount the play at her Broadway house in the near future, which would make "Ruined" eligible for the Tony for the first time.

Recent musicals dealing with vastly different wars have also struggled or failed commercially, including "A Tale of Two Cities," "American Idiot" and "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson." One exception was the 2009 revival of "Hair," which turned a profit on Broadway, though the London production was a commercial disappointment.

"To my mind, it's difficult to produce any dramatic play with a challenging theme today, especially about war or current affairs," said another frequent Broadway play producer, Roy Furman. Casting stars is essential, he added, to generate attention and mitigate the financial risk.

Ken Davenport, another New York producer, has been shopping around for stars for his planned revival of Aaron Sorkin's breakout play "A Few Good Men," from 1989. Declining to name names, he said he had encountered some reluctance from actors to take on the play, which centers on a crime at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base, well before its notoriety as a detention camp.

Mr. Williams has a history of using his star power to bring attention to matters of war. Over the decades he has performed frequently for soldiers in combat theaters including Iraq and Afghanistan.

In an interview Mr. Williams said he had not been looking to do a play when he read "Bengal Tiger." But he recalled being gripped by its use of ghosts, given the haunting quality of war, and by the all-but-undiagnosed presence of post-traumatic stress disorder afflicting most of the characters.

"I also thought it was powerful to have a major play that dealt with the consequences of war for not just American but the Iraqis," he said. "The play shows how life goes on in Baghdad in the face of constant death. And I liked the disorienting aspects, like a scene where characters are screaming in Arabic and the American soldiers, like the audience, is submerged into the chaos over there."

So far Mr. Williams appears to be paying off as a draw. Last week "Bengal Tiger" was three-quarters full and grossed $637,756, strong earnings for a new play. And another new Broadway drama, "War Horse," which is set against the backdrop of World War I and uses elaborate puppets to portray animals, virtually sold out last week and grossed $653,919. Bob Boyett, a producer of "War Horse," said he hoped that both war plays would have the kind of audience pull that escaped his revival of "Journey's End."

"Americans have shown that they won't see bloody war movies about Iraq in large numbers, and talky, history-driven plays about war can have a hard time too," he said. "But I think exploring the human content of war onstage has a chance. The emotional quotient is absolutely critical."

A version of this article appeared in print on March 24, 2011, on page C1 of the New York edition


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