Review: Rajiv Joseph’s ‘Guards at the Taj’ is dark, powerful

Jun 11, 2015, 5:36 PM
In this image released by Boneau/Bryan-Brown, Omar Metwally, left, and Arian Moayed appear during a...
In this image released by Boneau/Bryan-Brown, Omar Metwally, left, and Arian Moayed appear during a performance of "Guards at the Taj," now performing at the Linda Gross Theater in New York. (Doug Hamilton/Boneau/Bryan-Brown via AP)
(Doug Hamilton/Boneau/Bryan-Brown via AP)

NEW YORK (AP) — If you think your job stinks, take a moment to consider the pretty horrible tasks facing the lowly sentries Humayun and Babur in Rajiv Joseph’s new “Guards at the Taj.”

First, they’re ordered to stay up all night on Imperial Guard duty. Second, they’re not allowed to look at the beautiful thing they’re guarding. Third, after their shift, they have to cut the hands off 20,000 men.

Joseph, who wrote the Broadway play “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” uses these two poor men in 1648 in India to explore beauty, trauma, bureaucracy and friendship. It’s deeply moving, lovingly acted and packed with ideas.

But it’s not for everyone, as Joseph channels a little Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” a touch of Martin McDonagh and quite a bit of Quentin Tarantino. There’s existential angst, silliness, horror and pitch-black humor. Strong stomachs are required.

The world premiere opened Thursday at the Atlantic Theater Company starring Tony Award-nominated actors Omar Metwally and Arian Moayed, both tremendous under the muscular direction of Amy Morton.

Metwally plays Humayun, the law-and-order half of the pair. He’s a stickler for rules and just wants to climb the career ladder. Babur is the dreamer, the inventor and poet. They are lifelong friends who share secret fantasies of fleeing or maybe just checking out the Imperial Harem. They are also doomed.

The play opens at dawn on the first day the Taj Mahal is to be unveiled after 16 years of secretive building, but Humayun and Babur are facing south and not allowed to turn around and see it. Things only get worse from there.

The five-scene play comes to life in Timothy R. Mackabee’s stone backdrop and David Weiner’s elegant lighting, which swoops from magical dawn to the dimness of an underground cave.

At the play’s end, you may look down at your hands with a new-found respect. Then put them together to honor an envelope-pushing playwright and two stunning actors.

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Review: Rajiv Joseph’s ‘Guards at the Taj’ is dark, powerful