Like a Beckett play with a few more degrees of naturalism, Rajiv Joseph’s Guards at the Taj is funny, haunting and deeply insightful into the human condition.
Like his Pulitzer Prize–nominated Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, this play begins with the simple premise of two men guarding something. Humayun (Raffi Barsoumian) and Babur (Ramiz Monsef), not coincidentally named after earlier Mughal emperors, stand guard at the brand-new Taj Mahal hours before it is to be unveiled at dawn in 1648. Each is the Everyman who tries to do his job but dreams of more.
While standing watch, these two friends begin to speak at length, even though doing so is forbidden. Once the conversation turns to Ustad Isa, the supposed architect of Taj Mahal, Humayun lets slips information about Isa’s fate — and the fate of the workers now that the splendid edifice has been completed.
This slip pulls the thread of a conversation that leads to a gruesome second scene in which the two guards must carry out the most brutal of tasks. Despite their horrific charge, in the aftermath of the incident, Joseph finds humanity and even humor in their conversation.
Do not gravediggers tell jokes? Shakespeare surely thought so.
In the third of four scenes, Babur, the dreamer, is deeply disturbed by what he has been through. But as he pushes the envelope in terms of his freedom of speech, Humayan’s more rule-driven personality is pushed to the brink, and, without giving too much away, Humayun turns on his best friend because the edicts of empire demand it.
Though the play is set in the 17th century, Joseph not only explores issues such as freedom of speech under totalitarian regimes but also hints at capitalism, drone strikes, class warfare and other such modern topics. That is the skill in his writing.
Joseph’s words and ideas, while not as ornate as the wonder of the world they describe, are just as beautiful as the Taj Mahal must have been on that morning in 1648 when it first gleamed in the sun. During that scene, in which Babur and Humayun first see the Taj, the actors’ expressions, eyes and body language communicate so much without their uttering a word.
Both Barsoumian and Monsef are tremendously talented, as is director Giovanna Sardelli, who expertly employs long silences, nonverbal communication and Pinteresque pauses to allow the actors space to communicate the comedy and wonder in the script.
The design team — scenic designer Tom Buderwitz, sound designer Vincent Olivieri and lighting designer Lap Chi Chu — succeeds at making tangible the magical and horrific ambience the piece alternately demands. Visually and aurally, we are transported to 1600s India in all the glory and menace that was life under imperial rule.
Joseph deals with violence, existential philosophical questions and primal human desires, as he did in Bengal Tiger. Most striking about this play, though, is the way in which Joseph introduces a few seemingly simple ideas but, over time, churns them in the characters’ minds into a beautiful butter of insight with an unforgettable depth of flavor.
Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave, Westwood; through Nov. 15. (310) 208-5454. geffenplayhouse.com.