At a cafe in Brooklyn near his home, playwright Rajiv Joseph locks eyes with an adorable toddler in a fuzzy one-piece jumpsuit.
It is a wary gaze.
"I like to come here and write sometimes, but it tends to fill up with little guys like that," he says, laughing. "I feel like one big cliche: The writer and the legion of moms and their kids colliding at a coffee shop."
That keen eye for conflict _ and absurd humor _ infuses much of Joseph's work, most clearly in "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo," a Pulitzer Prize finalist in drama about the Iraq war starring Robin Williams that opens Thursday
Joseph, though, is no bundle of nerves as he awaits opening night. Though the work marks the playwright's Broadway debut, the 36-year-old writer thinks it is ready for the New York critics. So is he.
"I'm a pretty fierce critic of myself. I have a strong hide," he says. "No one has ever written anything about me that's worse than what I say to myself every day when I'm writing."
This has been a busy few months for Joseph. His dark comedy "Gruesome Playground Injuries" starring Jennifer Carpenter and Pablo Schreiber was performed off-Broadway at Second Stage Theatre, and his psychological thriller "The North Pool" made its world debut in Palo Alto, Calif. After "Bengal Tiger" opens, he'll dash off to Houston to work on "The Monster at the Door" at The Alley Theatre.
Not bad for a guy who was never a theater geek and didn't initially intend to write plays. Joseph, a native of Ohio who majored in English in college, planned to write screenplays at New York University before finding his real calling.
"I think for writers, it's all about finding that thing that you're kind of good at. It doesn't necessarily have to be the thing you love the best," he says. "I love novels and I really wanted to be a novelist. But I'm not a good fiction writer. I'm really not."
Joseph says he's been heavily influenced by Lynn Nottage's "Intimate Apparel" and Stephen Adly Guirgis' "Our Lady of 121st Street," which made him want to write plays. Other playwriting heroes include Theresa Rebeck and David Lindsay Abaire, whose "Good People" is on Broadway right now, alongside Guirgis' "The Motherf----- With the Hat."
Actors gush about Joseph's rich roles and jazzlike dialogue. Carpenter says he was warm and open to ideas when she began working this winter on Joseph's "Gruesome Playground Injuries," which tells a love story through lovers' scars.
"He's like this gorgeous filter. We all have these common experiences, all these emotions and things we can't name. It washes over him and it comes out and you want to say, `That's exactly what I meant. I know exactly how that feels.'"
Joseph, whose father immigrated from India and whose mother is from Europe, served for three years in the Peace Corps in Senegal, and clashes of culture are not unusual in his work, whether it be a transfer student from Syria with secrets in "The North Pool," or an Indian math genius who becomes an origami apprentice in "Animals Out of Paper."
But the focus of Joseph's plays, which also include "The Leopard and the Fox," "Huck & Holden" and "All This Intimacy," are hard to predict, something he is very happy about.
"They're all over the map and I kind of like that. I kind of like not being able to be pigeon-holed and I like that no one can actually say what a play of mine is going to be," he says. "I like to evade."
Joseph's "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" began as homework for one of his classes. He was fairly certain he'd stumbled onto a great idea for a play when he put his spin on a news story about a tiger biting a U.S. soldier in a Baghdad zoo. He turned out to be alone in that view.
"I thought there was something there," the playwright recalls. "The sad thing was that no one liked it so it kind of went into a drawer for two years. I kept on thinking about it."
Joseph eventually returned to the 10-minute scene and kept building on it with the help of workshops, mentors and fellowships. He added Iraqi characters after someone pointed out that he had none. He added a scene at a leper colony after reading a story about one. He conjured Saddam Hussein's son Uday and put him in the play.
"I just found that little thread and started pulling," he says.
What eventually emerged is a sweeping, thrilling examination of war and its brutality, where the living and the dead intermix and where the ghost of a dead tiger acts as a guide. That metaphysical whiff is no accident.
"I could not write a naturalistic play about Iraq. I've never been there. I could do all the research. I could write a very gritty war play, but ultimately that doesn't interest me," he says. "Part of why it doesn't interest me is that I would spend half my time fretting over whether I'm getting it right or not. By doing it my way, I'm opening it up. I'm creating my own ghost world."
Joseph credits the Lark Play Development Center in New York for nurturing his vision, which included multiple revisions and readings, including a trip to Mexico City to see "Bengal Tiger" performed in Spanish.
"He's kind of extraordinary. He's the rare example of the person who has his feet of clay and his head in the stars," says John Clinton Eisner, who co-founded the Lark. "I think he's a philosopher who doesn't talk like that."
The play, with Moises Kaufman directing, made its world premiere in the summer of 2009 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Los Angeles and then went to the Mark Taper Forum last year. For the Broadway launch, Williams replaced Kevin Tighe as the tiger.
"It's hard to put on a new play on Broadway by an unknown writer and also about Iraq. But we have some ballsy producers and they knew what they were doing was kind of a risk. They swung for the fences," says Joseph, who also writes for the Showtime series "Nurse Jackie."
"They knew what they needed to get: They needed to get someone like Robin to really guide this _ that's just the grim reality of it. We lucked out in many ways because we got a big celebrity but he also happens to be really, really right for the role."
He expects to have dozens of family members on hand when the play opens on Broadway, but Joseph won't have much time to savor the moment. He has that play opening in Houston on April 29 and it is far from finished.
"It's changed in so many different ways. Every character's changed, the places have changed, the story has changed _ and yet the spirit of the play is somehow still there and I don't know why that's happening," he says, laughing.