Saturday, January 08, 2011
rajiv joseph | bengal tiger at the baghdad zoo
A Little God, A Little Evil, A Lot Of Ritual
by Patrick Healy
New York Times, December 29 2010
When Rajiv Joseph was 13, he was voted Most Likely to Become a Priest by the other eighth graders at Gesu Catholic School in Cleveland. He wasn’t especially pious, he said — just quiet, private, observant. Little did his classmates know that their designation was apt. An altar boy, he had for years imagined becoming a priest. He loved the theatricality of Bible stories, like the big reveal of the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus. He loved the rituals of the Roman Catholic Mass, like the blessing of the Eucharist as the body of Christ. Most of all, matters of morality and faith tumbled around in his mind. Eventually Mr. Joseph’s interest in girls made celibacy a nonstarter, but his interest in good and evil, in sin and redemption, found powerful expression in his calling as a playwright.
His dark comedy "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize, is set to open on Broadway in March, starring Robin Williams. It is in large part a morality tale about American soldiers and Iraqi civilians trying to make sense of the war. Another play, "The North Pool," which will have its world premiere this spring in Palo Alto, Calif., centers on guilt and forgiveness stemming from a death. And on Wednesday Second Stage Theater will begin Off Broadway performances of Mr. Joseph’s “Gruesome Playground Injuries,” a drama dealing with the power of rituals. Each scene revolves around a new wound — whether accidental, self-inflicted or from fights with others — sustained by two emotionally damaged friends who minister to each other’s physical hurts but struggle to tend to their psychological pain.
Played by Jennifer Carpenter (the title character’s sister on the Showtime series “Dexter”) and Pablo Schreiber (a Tony Award nominee for “Awake and Sing!”), the two characters appear at different ages during the play, between 8 and 38 — a narrative device that helps illuminate their long histories as each other’s keepers.
Over tea recently at a cafe in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where he frequently writes, Mr. Joseph recalled that his fellow middle school students found him difficult to classify during the “Most Likely To” balloting — a shy boy whose father was from India, his mother from Ohio. And as a writer he remains hard to categorize, having produced dramas, comedies and thrillers since he began playwriting seriously only eight years ago. His work can veer from intense darkness to laugh-out-loud humor, especially “Bengal Tiger.”
“I’ve always been interested in human nature and codes of behavior, how we come to make choices — moral ones, ones about love or family — and how primal forces like longing, or desire or a hunger for faith can take us to wild places,” said Mr. Joseph, now 36. “As a writer I’ve come to think of myself, among other things, as a Catholic playwright because my plays really are informed by this love and connection to storytelling and ritual.”
Scott Ellis, the director of “Gruesome,” said that part of Mr. Joseph’s talent lay in taking on sweeping moral issues with a strong sense of humor. His characters grapple with existential questions throughout “Gruesome,” and the Tiger in “Bengal Tiger” (to be played by Mr. Williams) is a kind of Mesopotamian philosopher, but they also clearly recognize the absurdities of their situations.
“I’m not sure if Rajiv could write so successfully about spiritual clarity, about moments in life that are bigger than our own selves, if he didn’t have such a strong eye for comedy and an obvious desire to entertain,” Mr. Ellis said. “It’s a skill set that most young playwrights his age struggle to develop but seems to come naturally to him.”
He enrolled in the graduate dramatic writing program at New York University in 2002 and soon turned from his first interest, screenwriting, to playwriting. “I loved the urgency of two or three characters talking to each other onstage, confronting each other, and the art of stripping away any part of the scene or story that didn’t have to do with what those characters needed,” said Mr. Joseph, who cited the playwrights Lynn Nottage (“Ruined”) and Stephen Adly Guirgis (“Our Lady of 121st Street”) as key influences. ...
Carole Rothman, the artistic director of Second Stage, used the same word — “urgency” — to describe her attraction to Mr. Joseph as a writer and to “Gruesome Playground Injuries,” which has played in Houston and Washington.
“Rajiv understands that part of success in live theater is grabbing hold of your audience so they don’t want to take their eyes off the stage,” Ms. Rothman said. “And Rajiv’s own appeal is that he is hard to pin down. He’s very thoughtful, but he writes bad-boy plays and has this sparkle that draws artists and women to him.” (For the record Mr. Joseph is single.)
Once “Gruesome” is up, Mr. Joseph will turn to preparing “The North Pool” for TheatreWorks in Palo Alto and “Bengal Tiger” on Broadway. After two productions of that play in Los Angeles, it will be his Broadway debut.
While disappointed that his friend Kevin Tighe won’t stay with the play as the Tiger, Mr. Joseph said that he was thrilled to have Mr. Williams in the role (“it’s like adding plutonium to a milkshake”), and that casting a star was essential to landing the show on Broadway, a prospect that still dazzles him.
“It’s kind of daunting, thinking about what 2011 will be like for me and my life,” Mr. Joseph said. “Right now I’m just very glad and grateful that I found my way to playwriting, and that from what I can tell from audiences I’m not the only one interested in the questions in these plays.”
Thanks to Chris Domig for letting me know about this article. Chris was Sad in "Dirt" in this year's fringe of the Fringe at Pacific Theatre this year. But he's much happier now.