Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe coined the phrase “infinite riches in a little room.” The quote feels apt for a play like Rajiv Joseph’s treasurable “Guards at the Taj,” a one-act, two-character piece that provides a human-scaled treatment of oversized history and legend. This impressively compact work successfully takes on immense themes, focusing especially on humanity’s need for beauty and its counterbalancing force, our capacity for cruelty and control.

‘Guards at the Taj’
★★★1⁄2
When: Through July 22
Where: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted
Tickets: $20 – $94
Info: steppenwolf.org
Run time: 1 hour and 20 minutes, with no intermission

The story begins as a deceptively simple one. Two guards serve night duty at the wall protecting the Taj Mahal as it nears completion in 1648. They aren’t supposed to talk but they do, with Joseph employing a contemporary, gently stylized dialogue that emphasizes accessibility with nods to the lyrical.

Humayun (Omar Metwally) is the rigidly rule-abiding son of privilege who can never seem to please his father. Babur (Arian Moayed) chafes against the rules and likes to share his free-flowing ideas, particularly for fanciful inventions. Humayun notes the various blasphemies and seditious comments that Babur makes, even noting the punishments that by Indian law could accompany them, ranging from the mild to the torturous to the lethal (and torturous). At the same time, however, Humayun clearly takes great pleasure in Babur’s company, his reference to penalties serving more as teasing banter than genuine warning. Despite their differences they’re best friends since childhood.

They talk about many things, but above all about beauty, and in particular the reputed beauty of the Taj Mahal, which, after 16 years of hidden construction, will be revealed for the first time when the sun rises. The Mughal emperor Shah Jahan ordered the Taj, a monument to love and bereavement, built as a tomb for his favorite wife. But as the construction finishes, Humayun also reports of swirling rumors (to us a long-lasting but unhistorical legend) that Jahan, determined that the Taj will remain the most beautiful creation of all time, plans to take steps to ensure this is so by ordering an over-the-top act of mass cruelty.

 Pictured (L to R) Omar Metwally (Humayun) and Arian Moayed (Babur) in Steppenwolf’s Chicago premiere production of Guards at the Taj by Rajiv Joseph, directed by ensemble member Amy Morton in the Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N Halsted St. Performances run through July 22, 2018. Tickets are available at 312- 335-1650 and steppenwolf.org. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Omar Metwally (left) and Arian Moayed in a scene from “Guards at the Taj” in Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre. | Michael Brosilow

At the end of this first scene, in which the two men talk, facing forward, in front of a concrete block of a wall, Babur discards the rules and turns around to see the Taj, and convinces Humayun to do the same. Their swords drop to the ground, and lighting designer David Weiner casts them, movingly, in a warm, glowing light, reflecting both the physical dawn and a moment of existential transcendence.

But by the time the lights come up on the second scene, that concrete wall gives way, in Tim Mackabee’s startling set design, not to a scene of beauty, but one so horrific as to border constantly on the darkly humorous.

By telling this tale through characters who represent the ordinary — Humayun and Babur (both named after former emperors) very much bring to mind Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, small parts in “Hamlet” who Tom Stoppard recognized as unwitting but key players in the tragedy — Joseph contemplates themes of duty and morality, responsibility and freedom, friendship and betrayal, obedience and resistance, as well as the aspirations and limitations of power. Can the emperor end beauty? Would life be bearable without it?

Joseph provides a narrative that gives “Guards at the Taj” a compelling forward thrust, although this is a play driven as much by theme as story. Aside from occasional bursts of physical action, the two actors talk, and it’s the quality of their dialogue and their relationship that makes this work both entertaining and deeply, mindfully evocative.

Joseph, whose best known work, “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” was produced at Lookingglass Theater in 2013, has a unique voice that requires a degree of careful refinement, of casual sophistication. This stellar production is directed by Amy Morton, the Steppenwolf regular who also helmed this play in New York (with the same cast and design team), where it won off-Broadway’s Obie Award for Best New Play. Morton and her fine actors — who communicate years of friendship in a quick sideways glance — balance the play’s seriousness and humor with aplomb, capturing the slightly angular reality of this monumentally expressive tall tale.

Steven Oxman is a local freelance writer.