The life of a security guard is a dull one indeed. Especially if you're forbidden to not only look at the building you are guarding, but also to speak on the job. This is the unfortunate situation our two main characters, Babur and Humayun, find themselves in at the start of Rajiv Joseph’s Guards at the Taj, playing through February at the La Jolla Playhouse.
The play follows the two guards on the last night before the world unveiling of the Taj Mahal. While the show starts out innocently enough, with Babur asking after the birds that sing all around them, pointing out various stars in the night sky, and even conjuring a wild idea for a flying machine while his counterpart, Humayun, only wants to talk about the women in the Imperial Harem. But the play soon takes a strange—and often bloody—turn as the good–natured bickering turns into decidedly morbid gallows humor as things go wrong for the two friends. The shift in tone, which transitions from from two friends talking about whatever comes to their minds on a boring night of work to the violent second act, is a bold theatrical move that works; because Guards at the Taj relies so heavily on surprise and cleverly initiates the change in tone, the audience never sees the twist coming.
The play, directed by Jaime Castaneda, is not all humor, however. It manages to raise very important philosophical questions, such as the morality of following the dictates of a brutally oppressive regime, the question of beauty in the lives of ordinary people and the differences between freedom and tyranny, all while never beating the audience over the head with the messages. This allows the audience to think about the questions raised, but not with such blatancy that the humor is missed. It remains a comedy first, freshman philosophy class second.
The performances by the two leads, Humayun played by Manu Narayan and Babur by Babak Tafti, succeed because the two actors play off each other so effectively. In many ways, the two lead characters are opposites: Humayun’s clever cynicism does not overshadow Babur’s childlike wonder, but neither does he reach the point of being annoying with his worldly curiosity. The actors do such a good job at pulling you into their world, one so different than what we know today, that, when the play makes its sharp, dark turn, the audience is willing to go along for the ride.
Working together, these two pull off a play that will have audiences laughing in their seats, thinking hard during intermission, and thoroughly discussing its ideas on the drive back home.
Guards at the Taj runs February 2–28 at the Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive. For more information about the play, cast and crew, including where to get tickets, go to the La Jolla Playhouse website.