By MARK BLANKENSHIP
Glenn Davis and Necar Zadegan are making their Broadway debuts with Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, Rajiv Joseph's tense and metaphorical drama about American soldiers, Iraqi civilians, and a thoughtful speaking tiger. But while they're new to the Rialto, they're no strangers to the play.
Like most of the seven-person cast, the actors were in Bengal's first two productions, at L.A.'s Kirk Douglas Theatre in 2009 and L.A.'s Mark Taper Forum in 2010. (Robin Williams, who plays the tiger, is the only newbie in the New York run.)
Director Moises Kaufman is also returning for a third go-round, which begs the question: Are things different this time? Does appearing on Broadway change your experience of a play you've known for years?
"Well, the first time we did it, it was just the seven of us getting into a room, working on this wonderful new play with this unknown playwright and this great director," says Davis, whose character is an American soldier on a quest to recover stolen gold. "It was sort of freeing because there was no expectation. It was just, 'Hey, we're gonna do this thing, and if it works, it works.
"Now, fast forward two years later, we're on Broadway, and there's so much more to it. There's a huge amount of expectation. There's an extreme amount of money involved, and at the end of the day, there's Robin Williams. When we're doing some of the scenes with Robin, there's an expectation that because he's a comedian, he's going to be funny. If he makes a gesture, there's laughter from the audience."
Zadegan, joining Davis for lunch near the theatre, says she tries to ignore those expectations: "If I thought about it, I would probably pass out and die from the pressure. We're just so focused on work all the time, and that's what gets us through."
As they prepare for their official opening next Thursday, the company is tweaking the show every day. Zadegan plays two characters---a mysterious leper and an Iraqi woman whose house is raided by American soldiers---and just last week, her final scene was restaged. The new version, she says, "exists within the magic realism of the play. It's a moment now that I think physically and tangibly illustrates some of the bigger ideas."
Davis adds, "It's something we've been working on for years and couldn't quite get it right until this production."
That kind of work not only distracts from the pressure, but also helps the cast forget they're working with a superstar. "Robin is Robin," says Zadegan. "He's so humble and sweet. We're doing all this marathon acting---it's so many hours---that I forget he's the guy from all those movies."
Beyond the increased expectations, Broadway also bring others demands. The Kirk Douglas Theatre has 300 seats and the Mark Taper Forum has 700, but the Richard Rodgers holds 1,400 people. For actors, playing to such a large house means physically altering a performance.
"We talk about 'darkening every eyebrow,' because you want that expression to reach," says Davis. "Yesterday, Moises was giving me a direction, and he said, 'Do that. Do what you're doing, but with more intensity.' And you get what he's saying because if I say, 'I'm gonna need you to give me that phone,' well… okay. But if I say, 'I'm gonna need you to give me that phone' there's an urgency that reads to the people in the last row."
Since all of her lines are in Arabic, Zadegan especially needs the audience to read her tone of voice and her body language . "It is very important to me that everything we say in Arabic land," she says. "If you can put yourself in the shoes of this woman, then we've translated the story."
Davis notes another practical demand of working in a big house: "At the Taper and at the Kirk Douglas, pretty much your eye level was where you looked out to connect with the audience. Now, you have to take it up and out because there are people above you and on the sides. If I say, 'My situation is messed up,' and I'm kind of looking down at my feet, then the people up here [in the balcony] don't seen what I'm going through. So I need to give it up. [Opening his arms and looking up:] 'This situation is f***ed!' And everyone in the ether can read what your face is saying."
Zadegan adds, "It's actually very freeing. The show is so tight. We're right on top of each other, and it's so intense, but the size of the space allows you moments where you can breathe. It almost gives you more to play in. You can open it up and let things happen in a different way."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor