The Shockingly Talented Mr. Joseph

I first saw a reading of Rajiv Joseph’s Guards at the Taj on the first of February 2015 and haven’t stopped thinking about it since.  A week earlier, this play had won the Laurents/Hatcher Foundation Award, given annually for an unproduced, full-length play of social relevance by an emerging American playwright.  The play had its world premiere production at the Atlantic Theatre in New York in May 2015 under the direction of Amy Morton.

Rajiv Joseph

Rajiv Joseph

When I learned from one of my favorite directors, Giovanna Sardelli, that she was directing the play’s second production, in Los Angeles, I promptly arranged to see a preview performance last week.  I am still reeling.  This must be one of the most intense, bloodiest, and strangely beautiful plays ever.  More on Guards at the Taj later in this post.

I fell in awe of Rajiv Joseph the first time (of several) that I saw his play The North Pool.  It remains one of my favorite new plays ever.

Since then, I have had the opportunity to meet him briefly a few times and see more of his work, including his Pulitzer Prize finalist play Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, his plays Gruesome Playground InjuriesThe Lake Effect,  Mr. Wolf,  Guards at the Taj and a couple readings of new works in development.

Rajiv Joseph’s plays are eclectic in scope, subject matter, number of characters, settings, themes and time periods.  But although his plays are varied and wide-ranging in many ways, there are certain common elements one can find in his plays.  There is, almost always, a level of gruesomeness. Sometimes it is literally bloody, (or even in the title: Gruesome Playgound Injuries) and sometimes it is the gruesomeness of human cruelty, but  as a playwright he seems fearless about exposing our terrible side and makes the audience own it. Even his less blatantly gory plays have moments of almost casual horror — birds shipped live in tubes on a long distance journey which they may or may not survive in The North Pool, the bathtub of death in Mr. Wolf, a pre-meditated violent assault in The Lake Effect.

Rajiv Joseph is a brave playwright.  To spend  so much time immersed in, exploring and exposing your characters’ dark bits must be a little poisonous to a writer.  And many of Rajiv’s characters have some pretty twisty stuff going on inside.  It’s not just his characters where the ugliness lies — Rajiv is not afraid to take on some of our world’s scariest geopolitical landscapes such as in his play Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.  Another example: Describe the Night.   As fresh off the pen as you can get it when I saw its first reading just over a year ago, the play, still in development, is a brilliant, sprawling, complex play set in several countries, over several time periods, following several inter-related stories and main characters; it was fascinating and made me afraid for Rajiv’s personal safety if it is ever loudly produced since Vladimir Putin is a major character in the play — and will not like the portrayal if he ever sees it.  I remember reminding myself to lean back and relax, several times.

There is always great wit in Rajiv’s work.  The humor makes the ugliness go down a bit easier.  The harder we laugh, the harder we hurt.  He uses humor well and we really enjoy his plays even if our stomachs ache a bit when we leave.

The final unifying “Rajiv Factor” I can articulate is a particular gift of getting it right — the everyday dialogue between two people.  There is a cadence and flow to these kinds of conversations that Rajiv seems to have a great ear for and to translate well.  So, for example, he intersperses childhood memories and carryover childish behavior patterns between two characters (the siblings in The Lake Effect or the childhood friends in Gruesome Playground Injuries and Guards at the Taj) with current adult character plot point storytelling that make the characters fuller and more believable  – as well as more entertaining. The cat-and-mouse conversations between the vice principal and high school student characters in The North Pool are pitch perfect in tone and shift seamlessly  between seemingly incidental chat and clearly agenda-driven dialogue.

High school student Khadim (Adam Poss, right) faces a suspicious Vice Principal Danielson (Remi Sandri) in TheatreWorks' world premiere of Rajiv Joseph's "The North Pool" April 2011

High school student Khadim (Adam Poss, right) faces a suspicious Vice Principal Danielson (Remi Sandri) in TheatreWorks’ world premiere of Rajiv Joseph’s “The North Pool” April 2011

In a piece by theatre critic Karen D’Souza about Rajiv in 2011 she describes  several of his plays as taking place in  a  dark netherworld where the bizarre rubs elbows with the mundane, and morality is a moving target.”  That same article includes one of my favorite descriptions of Rajiv’s work, by Robert Kelley, artistic director of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley (where world and regional premieres of The North Pool and The Lake Effect were produced in 2011 and 2015), who said about Rajiv’s work:

“Each play moves in fresh and unexpected directions, yet each seems to capture the essence of life in our times. His vision moves rapidly from the closely observed detail of everyday events and conversations to a world of metaphor and universal truths.”

Jason Bowen, Nilanjana Bose, and Adam Poss in Rajiv Joseph’s The Lake Effect  TheatreWorks Silicon Valley March 2015

Jason Bowen, Nilanjana Bose, and Adam Poss in Rajiv Joseph’s The Lake Effect
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley March 2015


In addition to his prolific playwriting career, Rajiv has written for television (“Nurse Jackie”), films (Kevin Costner’s “Draft Day”) and, one of his favorite projects — musical theatre — FlyFly the Musical poster, a musical adaptation of Peter Pan for which he wrote both the book and co-wrote the lyrics.

Gifted director and frequent collaborator with Rajiv Joseph, Giovanna Sardelli, said:

 For me, Rajiv [Joseph] is one of the finest playwrights working right now. . . I love his ability to capture human beings as they struggle to choose whether to listen to their better angels or not. He’s amazing at writing people right on the cusp of those decisions, so that we, as audience members, see ourselves in those struggles.”

She’s right.  Even when those decisions and struggles are set in 1648 as in Guards at the Taj. I don’t much like describing plays.  I think it’s best not to know too much in advance — to go fairly cold and let the playwright work his or her magic.  Any attempt I make to tell you what a play is about is a very poor try to shorthand that experience.


Ramiz  Monsef and Raffi Barsoumian in Guards at the Taj. Photo by Michael Lamont.

Ramiz Monsef and Raffi Barsoumian in Guards at the Taj. Photo by Michael Lamont.

Suffice it to say that Guards at the Taj is a very uncomfortable play to watch.  It is a two character play — two young men, lifelong friends, now Imperial Guards at the Taj Mahal building site who, just as the complex is completed after 16 years, are given a stunningly horrific task ordered by the Shah Jahan.  Lots of blood. For a good overview of the play, see my favorite review of the New York world premiere, written by David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter who said: “ It begins almost like a comedy sketch but develops into a haunting consideration of loyalty and betrayal between friends, of duty and blind adherence to barbaric command, and of the ownership of beauty.”

Rajiv’s remarkable ability to draw a modern audience into a brutal, gory, cross cultural experience and make us see the relevance in our own lives is, quite literally for this play-goer, breathtaking.

Guards at the Taj opens October 14 and runs through November 15 at the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse.  Click here for tickets and more information.

My recommendation:  see anything and everything you can that Rajiv Joseph writes.


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