“I killed Beauty,” laments a character in Rajiv Joseph’s riveting new play Guards at the Taj, receiving its world premiere in a top-notch Off-Broadway production at Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater. The man, Babur (Arian Moayed), has just cut off the hands of the 20,000 workers who labored to construct the Taj Mahal. The emperor Shah Jahan gave the order so that nothing as beautiful as this structure would ever be built again.
Historians claim that this heinous deed is a persistent yet unproved rumor that has made its way into the legend of the Taj Mahal, built in the Indian city of Agra during the 17th century. Joseph’s play takes the emperor’s command as fact, and explores what it might have been like for the two imperial guards given this grisly task.
The opening scene establishes the abiding friendship as well as friction between these men, Humayun (Omar Metwally) and Babur. The former is the more straight-laced individual, concerned with following the rules, while the latter is a dreamer who thinks up wondrous inventions. A remarkable aspect of the scene is that it is performed almost entirely with the two men nearly motionless, as they are standing guard over the Taj Mahal on the morning it is set to be unveiled. Even so, the conflicting personalities of the guards are nicely conveyed by the actors—both of whom are Tony Award nominees for past work—as they deliver Joseph’s frequently amusing dialogue.
The second scene literally opens up Timothy R. Mackabee’s set, which mimics the look of rough-hewn stone. It takes place after the bloody hand-chopping and captures the horror of the situation while also demonstrating the bond between these longtime friends who refer to one another as “bhai,” or brother.
Joseph is able to strike a perfect balance between humor and drama as he addresses themes of blind obedience to unjust orders, personal responsibility, friendship, betrayal, and the appreciation of both nature and man-made invention. He is aided in this task by the nuanced performances of Metwally and Moayed under the superb direction of Amy Morton, herself a Tony nominee for her acting work.
A particularly compelling scene comes late in this relatively brief 85-minute play, as both characters have to grapple with the consequences of their actions in a way that will forever change the nature of their relationship. Moayed moves from anger to compassion to fear to desperation in a matter of minutes while Metwally demonstrates a combustible combination of sorrow, regret, and determination. The specific incident that provokes such emotions is too much of a spoiler to reveal here, but rest assured that there are no false notes struck in either script or production.
Guards at the Taj performs at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater (336 West 20th Street, New York, NY) through July 12. Tickets are $65 and can be purchased in person at the theater, by calling OvationTix at 866-811-4111, or by visiting Atlantictheater.org.