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THEATER REVIEW: "Guards At The Taj"

What would you think about if you were guarding the most beautiful building in the world for hours on end? What if you hadn’t even been allowed to see it?

Playwright Rajiv Joseph (who wrote “Bengal Tiger At The Baghdad Zoo,” a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2010) ponders this and other issues in his latest play, “Guards At The Taj.” Jaime Castañeda directs the show, which plays through Feb. 28 at La Jolla Playhouse.

It’s 1648 in Agra, India, and the Taj Mahal, 16 years under construction, is finally complete and will be unveiled tomorrow. This is the story of two Taj guards – Humayun (Manu Narayan), the son of a government functionary who plays by the book – and Babur (Babak Tafti), whose mind doesn’t run in bureaucratic circles but roams off the approved range of a Taj guard.

Off the top, Babur suggests they turn around and look at the Taj, a forbidden notion that horrifies Humayun, who immediately recites the infraction and its unpleasant penalty.

Next Babur wonders how they can get themselves appointed to guard the royal harem. Then his mind wanders again, and he reveals that he’s invented “Aeroplat,” a sort of magic carpet that will allow people to “soar into the stars like some giant bird.”

Babur is brought back to this planet when Humayun tells him that the Shah’s determination that no building of comparable beauty to the Taj shall ever be built has resulted in an order for the guards to commit an act of unspeakable barbarity.

You may get a bit of theatrical whiplash with the sudden tonal shifts here, moving from plain crazy talk to barbarity, ending with a dream sequence. It’s also a bit difficult to get a handle on the author’s intent, though he seems to be inviting us to consider the dichotomy between authority and morality, the concepts of friendship and betrayal and even the nature of beauty and its ownership. You won’t go too far wrong by thinking of it as a combination of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” and “Waiting For Godot.”

Tafti (last seen at the Playhouse in “Blood And Gifts”) and Narayan (who played Ricky Roma in the Playhouse’s 2012 “Glengarry Glen Ross”) are perfect foils for each other, and the Playhouse’s new Associate Artistic Director Castañeda directs this quirky 75-minute piece with a sure hand.

Joseph, having written a terrific play very early in his career (“Bengal Tiger At The Baghdad Zoo,” nominated for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize), now finds he’s competing with himself. “Tiger” is a tough act to follow. “Taj” isn’t as good, but it’s still worth seeing.

The Details

“Guards At The Taj” plays through February 28, 2016 at La Jolla Playhouse’s Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive (on the UCSD campus).

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm

Tickets: (858) 550-1010 or lajollaplayhouse.org