Guards at the Taj

Set in Agra, India, circa 1648, Rajiv Joseph's latest work, Guards at the Taj, focuses on two men who are, fittingly, guards at the Taj. Humayun (Omar Metwally) and Babur (Arian Moayed) are guarding the Taj Mahal, and at rise (literally—their shift begins at dawn), it is the day the 16-years-in-the-making grand mausoleum is to be revealed.

The efficient play covers about 48 hours of these two guards carrying out their duties, which include not just guarding the Taj Mahal but also other, more gruesome handy work, though Joseph's play is less about what they do and more about what they say.

By and large, Joseph (Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, The North Pool) wrote a romance play, as Huma and Babu (as the two affectionately call each other) ponder the great life questions. They talk about their purpose, they talk about their dreams, they talk about inventions. Mostly, and most deeply, they wonder what beauty is, prompted by the titular Taj, which the emperor has proclaimed to be the most beautiful thing in the world. Through their actions, Joseph asks us to wonder if beauty can be killed.

As he often does, Joseph uses humor to draw you in, entreating you to connect with these characters and pay attention. He then reveals the layers—these basic human truths underneath the bravado and posturing—to create something more profound and affecting. He is aided in this production, at Atlantic Theater, by director Amy Morton, a Tony nominee for her performance in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, another play that deftly uses humor to say something important.

Joseph also has the benefit of two top-notch actors: Omar Metwally (a Tony nominee for Sixteen Wounded) and Arian Moayed (a Tony nominee for Joseph's Bengal Tiger). The actors have known each other for years, and have been working with Joseph on this play since it was first conceived. The trio, in fact, visited the Taj Mahal, seeing first hand the world wonder in all its grandeur. (Check out this American Theatre article to learn about their journey.) Metwally and Moayed are stunning, and I won't soon forget the look on Metwally's face when Huma realizes that the one time he let down his guard was the one time he was actually free.

Guards at the Taj is a great work, another example of why Rajiv Joseph's is a necessary voice. Several regional productions are already planned; it is not to be missed.