Two guards are on duty at an outer gate in the walls surrounding the Taj Mahal on the day of its completion, Humayan, conservative and authority fearing and Babur, a free spirit with an inventive imagination.  Word comes out that Shah Jihan, who had the Taj built as a tomb for his favorite wife, has now ordered the amputation of the hands of all of those who worked on the Taj – including those of its great architect — to make sure that no building of equal beauty can ever be built.  

Humayan and Babur, pondering their position as low men on the totem pole of royal guards, realize with horror that the worst job — that is to amputate the hands of 20,000 men — will fall to them.

And it does.  By the end of the full day, the job is done – all 20,000 – no, make that 40,000 — hands.

If you would like to see these two decent, reluctant but perforce obedient men slosh around on a stage with a convincing bloody mess left by of 40,000 amputated hands, this is the play for you.

Unless you prefer the play’s second dramatic highpoint which on a par in horror – smaller scale but even more graphic.

It’s a good thing for the author that Shah Jihan is dead since otherwise the playwright would be sued for defamation of character because there’s no evidence that he ordered these dismemberments, one of many myths about the remarkable building.

This choice of myth is nothing but sensationalism, hitching on to current news-generated interest in terrifying mutilations.  The play passes as a parable of how decent men, whether timid or bold, are driven to commit atrocities and acts of betrayal in the face of absolute power but the “moral” is weakened by being based on a choice of myth over actuality, and pales before the perverted violence.

There’s a carelessness in the writing that honestly surprised me coming from the author of  the prize-winning play Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.  The two guards are said to have been close since childhood yet, when it’s convenient for the dialogue, Babur doesn’t know about his best friend’s boyhood hobby.   We’re told that Hamayun’s passivity in the face of authority is rooted in his relationship with his domineering father who’s near the  top on the totem pole, but we have no idea about Babur’s family or its relationship to his inventiveness and imagination.

Omar Metwally as the more conventionally-minded Humayan, and Arian Moayed as the free spirit who dreams of flying play their opposite characters well, bringing out the contrasts and pulling in some laughs (yes, laughs).  Still, although they’re said to be boyhood friends, Humayan seems to be of an older generation than Babur.

Guards at the Taj plays at the Atlantic Theater in Manhattan’s Chelsea district through Juky 12th, 2015.

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