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Straight Man

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Williams’s stand-up work, on the other hand, skims over heartache. It’s the dramatic roles that allow him to draw more deeply from his own emotions. “I can use all that pain, but with kind of a buffer.”

And sometimes it’s the pain of others. Over the past nine years, Williams has turned into a modern-day Bob Hope, without the golf club, visiting troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. Since performing on an outdoor stage would create a target for enemy fire, he often meets with soldiers as they are leaving or returning from long patrols, or in army hospitals filled with men missing arms and legs. In one ward, he met a young soldier with unfocused eyes. “What are you here for?” Williams asked. A nurse appeared at the soldier’s elbow. “He’s here to relax,” she said, code for post-traumatic-stress disorder. “Yeah,” the soldier said. “I’m taking it easy now.”

These experiences mimic the dark visions of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, which takes place in an Iraq beset with soldiers killing and ransacking for reasons they cannot name. It’s not so much a polemic against the Iraq War as a look at the sordid repercussions of all war. Living in New York, he says, has helped him find the Tiger’s snarling and grousing.

At today’s rehearsal, the Tiger mutters angrily about feasting on the weak, the small, and the young. Williams momentarily breaks character: “What am I, the Statue of Liberty?” The rest of the cast—all of them much younger—laughs hard, grateful for a measure of relief. It doesn’t last long; seconds later, they are still again. Now it’s just raw emotion, and if there’s a buffer, only Williams sees it. “A dead cat consigned to this burning city doesn’t seem just,” the Tiger cries. “But here I am.”


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