Just saw Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, Rajiv Joseph’s new play, at the Round House Theater in Bethesda, MD. It’s not a perfect play–there’s some unnecessarily on-the-nose dialogue, and it’s content to keep its two American characters democracy-whiskey-sexy caricatures, which can get grating. But overall this is a terrific play.

The tiger is played by a man, Eric Hissom in this case, who has a keen appetite, a sort of drunken-uncle garrulousness, and an unexpected existentialist spirit. He’s shot early on in the play and wanders the streets of Baghdad encountering other ghosts, including a Mephistophelean Uday Hussein.

I complained that a lot of plays etc about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan show basically no interest in imagining actual Iraqis and Afghans. This play, by contrast, is actually about Iraqis, believe it or not–Iraq, here, has a drama and inner life which didn’t start with the American invasion.

The play is funny–there’s a quick, grim little knock-knock joke at the beginning, and knock-knock jokes are a recurring theme–and startlingly violent, even for a war story. It ends up as a play about theodicy, basically. There are recurring images like hands and listening, unexpectedly-intertwining plotlines, and a few moments of haunting poetry, as when the tiger hears the muezzins calling people to prayer and their voices roll in to a ruined garden “like fog.”

The Iraqi characters, including the tiger, mirror the Americans in ways ranging from the tiger’s musing that he’s “10,000 miles from where I’m supposed to be” to an interpreter’s self-lacerating cry, “I am so tired of making the same mistake over and over again!” But the Iraqis don’t exist simply to provide commentary on the Americans. They have their own questions and histories.

There’s a shatteringly perfect ending line (“This is what he said”) which unfortunately is not quite the actual ending. There’s just a lot of intelligence, imagination, and gallows humor on display in this particular zoo.