Can great beauty survive savage cruelty? Are there levels of irony to be mined between the sublime and the banal?
Maybe something along those lines drew playwright Rajiv Joseph into wading the wispy muck titled Guards at the Taj, now at the La Jolla Playhouse.
Or maybe Joseph fantasized Waiting for Godot in India, with two hopeless nebbishes eternally stalled just outside the gates of understanding, in far more flashy and exotic surroundings Samuel Beckett specified?
Probably not, since all too soon on this occasion the baskets of severed human hands tip over and the shallow moralizings slide into the Grand Guignol.
Upon learning that Godot will not come this day either, one of Beckett’s pathetic tramps famously ends the play by saying to the other, “Well, shall we go?” and the other replies, “Yes, let’s go.” They do not move.
Much of the anguish in the human condition is in that simple stage direction.
Joseph’s equivalent dialogue lands somewhere between, “The point is… there is no point’’ and “Forty thousand hands chopped off? Whoa!” One can but speculate about the stage directions.
The setting for this load is the legendary 17th Century Taj Mahal, a building in India said to be one of the most beautiful in the world. According to myths and legends usually debunked yet carefully preserved, the king found the completed edifice so beautiful that he ordered that all 20,000 workers lose their hands so they could never again build anything so neat. (In some legends, the eyes are gouged out too, which at least would have simplified the work of the theatre’s prop builders. But noooo. Not this time. Just hands, hands and more hands.)
I’ve never seen the Taj Mahal, and I’m pretty sure I never will. It looks nice in pictures, but my feeling for the place echoes that of the character in Noel Coward’s Private Lives, who asks: “…it didn’t look like a biscuit box did it? I’ve always felt that it might.”
The two characters in Joseph’s play are guards of the new palace, so low-ranking that their posts are facing away from all that beauty. Their orders are to remain stalwart, rigid and silent but apparently nobody really monitors them. So they yack endlessly, and not without a certain loser’s charm. The one played by Manu Narayan is anxious about losing his job; Babak Tafti plays the dreamer of the pair, the inventor of fantasies. Like airplanes. With seat belts. All pretty harmless, just two young guys trying to find their niche. Until the latest palace gossip surfaces. The severed hands business.
Blackout. Scenery shifting. Lights up on two very tired teddy bears, their clothing stained crimson. One has been chopping and the other cauterizing. Pretty much all night. There are the baskets of results and the floor is a dark pool because the drain is clogged with… Well, you get the idea. So they go to work in a fog of exhaustion, cleaning the place up. Except Tafti’s character, the dreamer, is beginning to be haunted by a vision: In maiming the artisans, he has destroyed beauty itself. There can be no more beauty now.
Back on duty the next day, he still is haunted by that dream, even when his pal tells him that, in recognition of the good work they did on the hand job and the subsequent cleanup, they’ve been promoted: To duty in the royal haram.
Too late. The damage has been done. After some dreary additional melodrama and philosophizing, it’s all over.
So, has beauty triumphed after all? Hard to say. Maybe it depends on how you feel about the Taj Mahal.
Narayan and Tafti both are appealing and convincing actors. They could trade roles with never a hiccup. Director Jaime Castaneda has guided them into a vague, detached trance, cool enough to nudge all the gore toward allegory if there was more substance to the material. As it is, Castaneda might have been better with curses, teeth-gnashing and sword-waving.
Not that Takeshi Kata’s scenery – heavy on the slabs and the cold silhouettes – is very chewable or the industrial style of Thomas Ontiveros’ lighting particularly evocative. The designers, like the actors and the directors, all seem unclear about what’s needed here.
Continues in the La Jolla Playhouse Potiker Theatre on the UCSD campus at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays; at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; and at 7 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 28, 2016.