The savagery of humanity makes wild animals seem meek as kittens in "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo."

In the last few years, Rajiv Joseph has gone from an unknown playwright to a hot property. The Pulitzer-nominated playwright seems to be everywhere these days. San Jose's City Lights is unfolding the origami love story "Animals Out of Paper" through Oct. 20. San Francisco's Tides Theatre is delving into "Gruesome Playground Injuries" through Nov. 9.

Now, the ever adventurous San Francisco Playhouse, which introduced Joseph to the Bay Area, is taking on his brutally poetic Iraq drama "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo." Slyly directed by Bill English, this fascinating but flawed piece runs through Nov. 16 in its regional premiere.

SF PLAYHOIUSECraig Marker, left, and Gabriel Marin play marines guarding Tiger (Will Marchetti) at the Baghdad Zoo.
SF PLAYHOIUSE Craig Marker, left, and Gabriel Marin play marines guarding Tiger (Will Marchetti) at the Baghdad Zoo. ( sfp )

The ghosts of the dead are cursed to roam the streets of war-ravaged Iraq in this play, which starred Robin Williams on Broadway. Perhaps the most provocative of the doomed spirits is the title character, an aging tiger (a deliciously deadpan Will Marchetti dressed in tattered garb) who bites the hand that feeds him and gets a belly full of lead for his pains.

One of the trigger-happy Marines (Gabe Marin as Tom) charged with watching the tiger's cage loses a limb to the feral animal, while another (Craig Marker as Kev) makes off with some of the booty looted from Saddam Hussein's family palace, including a golden toilet seat and a gun.

While this edgy and ambitious drama lacks the taut focus of Joseph's thriller "The North Pool" and the delicacy of "Animals Out of Paper," few playwrights mix the visceral and the metaphysical with as much courage. The worlds of the living and the dead collide in a jarring montage of sights and sounds. English, who also designed the set, frames the action in a surreal tableau of stone and sand under a bruised orange sky. If the production lacks enough electricity to power Joseph's flights of existential bravado, the performances are uniformly insightful as the action flips from the wry to the bizarre.

Chaos reigns in this nightmarish fever dream, where no one can tell if the next moment will bring a bullet to the head or the wonder of a small child's delight at a garden. These moments of beauty and kindness are few and far between, as civilization crumbles into the abyss of a war zone.

The soldiers bray and swagger, caring only about the spoils of war. The civilians, quaking amid the suffering and destruction, only care about survival. Only the tiger seems to ponder issues of morality and philosophy. It seems the afterlife unleashes his capacity for abstract thought, leaving the once ferocious animal to puzzle out his place in the scheme of things.

The atrocity of war shines through in the details, the way an Iraqi man named Musa (a magnetic turn by Kuros Charney), who works as a translator for the American forces, pines for the halcyon days of topiary gardening, and the way a leper (Sarita Ocon) living in a pile of rubble bemoans the loss of her hands.

Perhaps the most harrowing element in the play is the ongoing exchange between Musa and his smarmy former employer, Uday Hussein (the nimble Pomme Koch), Saddam's oldest son, who's now dead but still triumphant about his passion for torture and mutilation. Musa is desperate to find a moment's peace amid the horror, but Uday's ghost relentlessly pulls him back into the fear and carnage. His taunting is deeply disturbing but also undeniably funny, a witty indictment of human nature at its most monstrous.

This is a grisly world of predators and prey, of rape and beheading, where there's no relief from the bloodshed, not even in death.

Contact Karen D'Souza at 408-271-3772. Read her at www.mercurynews.com/karen-dsouza, and follow her at Twitter.com/karendsouza4.

'Bengal tiger at the Baghdad zoo'

By Rajiv Joseph, presented by San Francisco Playhouse

Through: Nov. 16
Where: San Francisco
Playhouse, 450 Post St.,
San Francisco
Running time: Just over two hours, one intermission
Tickets: $30-$100;
415-677-9596,
www.sfplayhouse.org