CAMBRIDGE — It was plenty clear from Rajiv Joseph’s “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo’’ that the playwright possesses not just a striking originality of mind and a truckload of talent but a willingness to go to very dark places thematically and dramatically.
It was also clear from that breakthrough play — which was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in 2010 and ran on Broadway a year later, starring Robin Williams as the tiger — that Joseph has given a lot of thought to the depredations of the powerful throughout history and their impact on the powerless.
That preoccupation comes through with equal force in Joseph’s “Guards at the Taj,’’ hauntingly realized in an Underground Railway Theater production directed by Gabriel Vega Weissman.
“Guards at the Taj,’’ which won the Obie Award for best new American play two years ago, is a sharply drawn and engrossing portrait of a close friendship that is jeopardized by political forces the friends cannot control, in the form of a mind-bendingly grim duty imposed from on high. Joseph stares unblinkingly at the cruelties of which we humans are capable while insisting that we, too, take a long look.
As did Brecht with his famous poem “A Worker Reads History’’ (“Who built the seven gates of Thebes? The books are filled with names of kings. Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?’’), Joseph prompts us to think about the immense suffering that lies behind some of the wonders of the world.
The Taj Mahal is one of those wonders, of course, and it is outside that white-marble mausoleum in Agra, India, that we find two young imperial guards standing sentry in 1648, on the night before it is unveiled for the first time.
Friends since childhood, their names are Humayun and Babur, portrayed by Jacob Athyal and Harsh J. Gagoomal, respectively. Both actors deliver marvelously textured portrayals; Humayun and Babur may ultimately be pawns in a large and ruthless game, but Athyal and Gagoomal endow them with an individuality and specificity that elevates the moral and emotional stakes of “Guards at the Taj.’’
The personalities and attitudes toward their jobs of Humayun and Babur could scarcely be more different. Babur is almost adolescent in his insouciance as he blithely flouts the imperial guards’ sacred oath not to speak and prods Humayun with impudent questions like: “When do we get to guard the Imperial Harem?’’ He constantly flirts with what Humayun considers blasphemy and — in Babur’s flippant remarks about the emperor — sedition.
By contrast, Humayun is all business, the by-the-book son of an authoritarian father. Humayun is ever-mindful of the fact that the job he and Babur have been assigned carries a heavy weight of responsibility, that his father is a top commander of the imperial guards, and that the emperor possesses the power of life and death over every single citizen in the kingdom.
For 16 years, 20,000 laborers, masons, and artisans have been toiling on the Taj Mahal, commissioned by the emperor to entomb his beloved wife. He has ordered that the complex not be seen by anyone except for those working on it, and, moreover, that “Nothing so beautiful as Taj Mahal shall ever be built again,’’ says Humayun.
In fact, a rumor is circulating that in order to achieve that latter goal, the emperor has issued a royal decree that is breathtaking in its inhumanity. It can’t be true, can it? The emperor wouldn’t go that far, would he?
Well, yes it can and yes he would, at least in Joseph’s version of the story. And Humayun and Babur are soon confronted with an unthinkable task.
Director Weissman skillfully constructs and sustains an atmosphere that is alternately foreboding, jolting, and elegiac, with strong contributions from his design team (Grace Laubacher, set; Reza Behjat, lighting; Benjamin Emerson, sound; and Leslie Held, costumes).
Athyal and Gagoomal deftly handle the transition from the darkly comic tone that prevails in the beginning of “Guards’’ to the aura of horror that then asserts itself, and then they vividly delineate the interpersonal fallout of that horror. As Gagoomal’s Babur rebels against what he sees as a threat to the very idea of beauty while Athyal’s Humayun responds to a different kind of threat, the actors make us feel at every moment how much their actions are costing the friends.
The play is shrewdly constructed and studded with moments that reverberate anew as events unfold, such as the seemingly innocuous first line of dialogue, when Humayun tells Babur “Wrong hand’’ (Babur’s holding his sword in the incorrect hand). Equally significant is the wordless end to the first scene, with the two friends holding each other’s hands as they gaze, awestruck, at the Taj Mahal, whose magnificence comes at such a terrible price.
GUARDS AT THE TAJ
Play by Rajiv Joseph. Directed by Gabriel Vega Weissman. Presented by Underground Railway Theater. At Central Square Theater, Cambridge, through April 1. Content warning from theater of “blood, violence.’’ Tickets: From $25, 617-576-9278, www.centralsquaretheater.org