by: Michael Bracken
Legend has it that once Shah Jahan was done constructing the Taj Mahal, he had the hands cut off of all who worked on building the magnificent monument. It was the most beautiful thing in the world, and he wanted to ensure no one else constructed something more beautiful.
We’ll probably never know if there’s any truth to the rumor, but playwright Rajiv Joseph is running with the ball regardless. His Guards at the Taj, at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater, accepts the tale at face value and imagines the two guards entrusted with the horrific task of enforcing the Shah’s edict: Humayun (Omar Metwally) and Babur (Arian Moayed).
Humayun is the son of a highly placed officer in the Shah’s guard. A stickler for rules, he lives in strict adherence to them. He’s conservative and punctual, and he never for a second questions the existing power structure.
Babur is almost his polar opposite: he questions everything. Habitually late, skeptical, and more than willing to flaunt regulations if he can get away with it, he thinks it’s ridiculous that he and Humayun must face away from the Taj while they keep guard, unable to bask in its glory.
Babur and Humayun have been friends since childhood. They bicker and banter, but they’re “bhai.” The ties that bind them are deep.
The play opens before dawn at the Taj Mahal on the day it makes its official debut. Humayun is already in place as Babur arrives late. Eventually in position, he begins talking, ignoring (as Humayun does himself) his friend’s admonitions that speech is against the rules.
Eventually Humayun tells him about the shah’s decree that twenty thousand workers have their hands chopped off. The two guards surmise, correctly as it turns out, that they will be assigned to enforce the edict. The lowest of the low in the royal guard pecking order, they are given all the tasks no one else wants.
We see the guards after they have done their duty, sitting in a room awash in blood. We learn that Babur actually did the chopping. Humayun cauterized the arms after the hands were removed. Babur insists he had the darker duty – he would seem to have a point – but Humayun says the two tasks were equal.
Babur ruminates on the injustice of the situation. He sees the enormity of what he’s done. He considers the shah’s rationale for chopping off hands – so that nothing more beautiful could ever be built – and concludes that the shah is responsible for the death of Beauty. He ponders further and decides he should kill the shah. He tries to enlist Humayun – big mistake – to join him in a conspiracy. Humayun declines.
Metwally and Moayed are perfectly matched as Humayun and Babur. Their exchanges are elegant. The two actors and their director, Amy Morton, have found the rhythm of the play, especially that of these two comrades in arms, and they surrender to it. You don’t doubt for a minute that these two young men were boyhood friends. They speak to each other with an intimacy that’s taken for granted. They share a history and carry the play easily. It’s a delight to watch their back and forth.
Guards at the Taj deals with both violence and tenderness, a combustible combination. The relationship between Humayun and Babur is fascinating because they’re so far away from each other and so close at the same time. The play touches on blind obedience, loyalty, friendship, and honor. It can be a little talky, but it’s always intelligent and often compelling.
Through June 28 Off-Broadway at the Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street. www.atlantictheater.org 90 minutes (no intermission).
Photos: Doug Hamilton