First Nighter: Rajiv Joseph's 'Guards at the Taj' Shocks Admirably

A myth about the Taj Mahal goes that when it was completed as an Agra, India palace for Shah Jahan's wife -- who didn't live to see it -- the mogul had the hands of the 20,000 workmen cut off so they could never construct a building that might equal or surpass it in beauty.

There seems to be no historical substantiation for the tall tale -- or for the same claim about other sites from antiquity -- but the story is so colorful in its macabre way that it continues to be told. Just at the moment it's a good thing, too, because the imaginative playwright Rajiv Joseph has not only heard the time-honored story, he's constructed Guards at the Taj, a darkly mesmerizing play around the 17th-century occurrence, now at the Atlantic.

In it, he places Humayun (Omar Metwally) and Babur (Arian Moayed), both outfitted in smashing uniforms with flashing swords (Bobby Frederick Tilley II, the costumer), at a wall before dawn lights the just completed architectural phenomenon. (Timothy R. Mackabee designed the sets.) They're best friends, although Babur is compulsively talkative, while Humayun, the son of the Mughal Imperial Guard head, has been cowed by his demanding father into playing entirely by the book.

After Babur forces a waning wee hours chat about birds and also about the two men's hope some day to be assigned to the Shah's harem, Humayun mentions a rumor he's heard but refuses to pass along. Badgered by Babur, he relents and reveals the hands-severing plan. The mention not only disturbs the pair, but the thought strikes them that they could be the ones selected to do the massive slicing.

They got that right. When the wall behind them has been raised for the second scene, Humayun and Babur are awash in a cave where the floor is covered in blood-red water and large baskets brimming with hands sit. Humayun can't see, and Babur is unable to loosen his grip on his sword.

Though those immediate circumstances are temporary and Humayun and Babur are soon attempting to pass the time by cleaning up after the chopping (Babur) and cauterizing (Humayun) and talking (for longer than they need to dramatically) about various inventions -- a possible vehicle to the stars, a transportable hole through which to escape from tight predicaments -- Babur is unable to keep up the placid front.

He insists that in excising 40,000 artisans' hands he's killed beauty. He's curtailed the possibility for beauty ever again to appear in the world. Humayun disputes this, but Babur refuses to dismiss his concern. When the next scene starts with Humayun and Babur back at their posts, the two seem calmer and then even joyful when Humayun announces the efficient execution of their assignment has gotten them the harem slot they've wanted.

But excitement occupies them only briefly when Babur realizes that following the Shah inches behind him as he visits his women puts them in position to take revenge on him.

That's about the extent to which outlining the plot can go without spoiling the fun, though "fun" may be the wrong word here. What ensues may have some comic elements but, considering all that's preceded the Humayun-Babur activities, Joseph's Guards at the Taj is too morbid for non-stop yuks. There's no call to lay out the ensuing complications, except to say best friends Humayun and Babur become greatly at odds with each other.

What the playwright is up to as he elaborates on the intriguing myth by creating the story of Humayun and Babur is examining the wages of guilt. It's a theme that always has cogency and is certainly pressing as presented in this unexpected perspective.

Along with that he also weighs the pros and cons of following orders. Initially, Humayun feels no pain at his part in the horrifying plan, while Babur tries to push his task to the back of his mind but fails. Ultimately, however, Humayun's conscience doesn't seem as impervious to remorse as he'd like.

Amy Morton directed Moayed and Metwally, and none of the three recoiled from the script's demands. When on guard, Metwally and Moayed hold lengthy frozen poses -- until the characters can't resist turning to look at the just finished Taj Mahal. When Joseph requires Humayun and Babur to wade in the red-red water, Morton has them wallow. When Humayun and Babur become emotional, Metwally and Moayed are thoroughly prepared for that, too.

There's no possibility of declaring Guards at the Taj easy on the eyes, ears and spirit, but while the temptation to look away is strong, there's no likelihood of following through on the urge. Joseph is too clever for that.