Tony forgot the ‘Tiger,’ but Brad Fleischer is resilient
Tuesday morning, Brad Fleischer woke up to a text message on his phone from a friend that said, “bleep the Tonys.” Fleischer thought, ‘What does that mean?’ Since it was the morning the Tony Award nominations were announced, Fleischer knew it couldn’t be good. Fleischer costars with Robin Williams in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, which received three Tony nominations—Best Featured Actor in a Play for Arian Moayed, Lighting, and Sound Design. While the Bengal Tiger team is honored with the nominations, it was expected that the show, written by Rajiv Joseph, would be a contender in more competitive categories like Best Play, Best Direction, and also score a Best Leading Actor nomination for Williams. Fleischer, who seemed undaunted by the Tony news, said he was satisfied simply performing the show for its audiences, but noted a desire for the creative time to be recognized.
“I am on stage with the best young actors I’ve ever worked with, and Robin Williams—I have zero to complain about,” Fleischer said. “But it’s hard because we’re all a part of this play and we feel for Rajiv and Moises [Kaufman, the director]. This play wouldn’t exist without them.”
Bengal Tiger, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2010, premiered at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, California in 2009 with the same cast (minus Williams). It moved to the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles before announcing its Broadway run with the A-list Hollywood star in the title role. Fleischer called the experience a thrilling ride with no regrets. “The Tonys are that weird feeling that makes it seem like a hitch, but if the crowds keep coming, that’s all that matters,” Fleischer said. “We’re doing this for the audience.”
The Tony nominations were not the only significant event to impact the cast of Bengal Tiger this week. The play takes place during U.S. combat in Iraq in 2003. Not surprisingly, when the news broke Sunday night that Osama bin Laden had been killed in Pakistan, like the rest of the world, Fleischer was floored. “Whatever your reaction is to bin Laden’s death, as you start talking about it with your friends, you just start remembering the moments of the war,” Fleischer said. “My first thought was that I am so proud to be a part of this production at this time. You do theater to hopefully be moved by things. I am beyond interested to see how this news is going to affect our performances this week.”
VIDEO: Brad Fleischer talks about working with Robin Williams, the excitement (and reality) of Broadway, and stage stunts going awry.
The Tonys and the historical headlines that influenced the show this week fall into a string of significant events in Bengal Tiger’s journey to the Broadway stage of the Richard Rodgers Theatre. Having been with the show since its premiere in Culver City, Fleischer has seen all the changes that Joseph and Kaufman have taken the show through. “We went through about 50 endings,” Fleischer said. “Being that he’s a writer, Moises helped Rajiv fine-tune things. Rajiv added more to the tiger part, once he realized that the tiger as narrator is what sets the audience at ease as everyone else’s storylines are expanding. Aside from Rajiv trying to figure out how he wanted to end the play, most of the changes were cuts.”
And then came the day when Fleischer found out that not only would the show be transferring to Broadway, but that Williams was joining the cast. “I was obviously excited by the Broadway transfer alone. Then you add Robin Williams, who was an idol of mine growing up,” Fleischer said. “The other thing that triggers in after the excitement is, ‘Oh God, now I have more work to do! I have to deepen this even more!’”
Fleischer plays Kev, a young American soldier, limited by over-eagerness and immaturity. “It’s not that he’s a simpleton, it’s just that he’s human. He wants to impress this other soldier, who reminds him of his brother and thinks he’s going to be a hero,” Fleischer said. “All the marines who come to see the show tell me, ‘I knew you. You were the kid we either had to beat up every night or worry about, because you were going to get our troop in trouble.’”
Fleischer also played a soldier in David Rabe’s Streamers, directed by Scott Ellis in 2008. While he has no immediate connections to the military, Fleischer said playing soldiers has given him insight into U.S. troops. “There’s an idea everybody has about people in the military being somebody different. I’ve been lucky; doing Streamers and Bengal Tiger, I realized we forget that these people are human. They get this heroic quality about them, which they deserve; but underneath it all, they’re still human beings put in this situation that I don’t think anyone’s ever prepared for.”
In addition to repeating character types as a soldier, Fleischer has also repeated playwrights—Rajiv Joseph. After premiering in Bengal Tiger in Culver City, Fleisher was cast in Joseph’s two-person show Gruesome Playground Injuries for its premiere at the Alley Theatre in Houston, Texas. “Rajiv is one of the rare writers who has a voice for the everyday guy,” Fleischer said. “Whether it be the cool guy, the loser, or the guy in between, Rajiv has a way of keeping their voice true, and also making it theatrical, so that the intellectuals will enjoy it. You find yourself laughing at something, and then something very dramatic happens. That’s what makes Rajiv, in my opinion, a genius.”
A unique opportunity arose for Fleischer last fall, when he was given the offer of acting in one of two of Joseph’s plays that were coming to New York—Playground Injuries off Broadway and Bengal Tiger on Broadway. Fleischer, who considers Joseph one of his best friends, told the playwright to make the decision for him, as deciding himself would have been too difficult. In the end, Bengal Tiger won out. “When that happened, I wondered if a situation like that had ever happened to any other actor,” Fleischer said, noting the win-win nature of the dilemma.
“I’ve had priceless theater moments,” Fleischer said, in response to selecting a favorite. “To separate them is difficult.”
What do you think of Brad Fleischer’s story, Rushers? Do you think Bengal Tiger deserved more Tony nominations? Have you seen Fleischer in the show—what did you think? If you were in his position, would you have chosen to go with Playground Injuries or Bengal Tiger? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, and tune into this week’s episode of Stage Rush TV for more of my interview with Brad Fleischer!