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Shish Kabobs With “Guards at the Taj’s” Raffi Barsoumian and Ramiz Monsef

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Raffi Barsoumian, left, and Ramiz Monsef
Raffi Barsoumian, left, and Ramiz Monsef

Raffi Barsoumian stares at his sweating glass of lemonade, twisting it to create a perfect, circular water mark on the table. He picks it up, sets it down and methodically swivels it again and again, until he has created a neat hexagon.

Ramiz Monsef looks over and then back at the watery smudges he’s made on the table with his own glass. “This is Humayun and Babur,” he says, laughing. “Hum makes a hexagon with his glass, and I’m just Kandinsky, swirling my glass around.”

The two don’t mean to imitate art, but they do, and not just in their impromptu designs. After all, they play best friends in Guards at the Taj — Rajiv Joseph’s violent and violently funny two-hander currently onstage in the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse — and they’re also close buddies in real life. When Joseph and director Giovanna Sardelli asked Monsef, who was cast first, who he liked to play with, he immediately offered Barsoumian’s name.

“It was a no brainer,” Monsef says. “With this show especially, it’s so grueling physically that you need a connection that’s really real. We have a shorthand already. We came into it being able to finish each other’s sentences.”

Just like they’re doing today. Both men are tall, lean and attractive, and eyes pinball toward them on our walk from the Geffen to Panini Cafe — but they’re more interested in their inside jokes than the attention. Barsoumian, who made teen hearts beat as a bad-boy vampire on the CW’s The Vampire Diaries, tends to play the straight man to Monsef’s sly-n-dry act. Just like onstage, their camaraderie is contagious. I find myself laughing just because they’re tickled. Yet the mood partly is lighthearted because the play they’ll perform in a couple hours is, by the end, decidedly not.

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Guards at the Taj’s jumping-off point is the myth that, after the Taj Mahal was built, the shah took brutal measures to ensure its beauty would never be eclipsed. Humayun (Barsoumian) and Babur (Monsef) are lifelong pals and lowly guards who find their friendship tested when they are chosen to execute a gruesome task. The production has received much praise, but the glory has a price.

“I have a drink when I go home. Watch some Doctor Who. Play with the dog,” Monsef says.

Barsoumian nods. “I didn’t get to bed till 2 a.m. last night. Takes a while [to shake it off],” he says.

For Monsef, the difficulty of the role lies in the fact that he’s experienced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in his life, while for Barsoumian, recognizing Humayan’s “by-the-books” rigidity in himself has been hard. “Hum’s slavish dependence on rules — it’s an interesting chance to be true to that, because there are elements of that in myself. Having to face that kind of cowardice in myself, [that] reliance on authority …” he says, trailing off.

“This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Monsef says. “This will go down as one of the top three productions I’ve ever been a part of. But that doesn’t change the fact that I was having panic attacks. There’s a lot of stuff that resonates with me personally.”

Monsef grew up in the Bay Area, the son of an Iranian father and American mother. His childhood wasn’t all white picket fences and fresh-baked cookies, he says, and he was kicked out of high school for fighting with a teacher. “I was angry and had a lot of learning disabities that were undiagnosed. I wasn’t a happy kid,” he says. Acting was a gift — he both liked it and knew he was good at it. At first, no colleges accepted him due to his less-than-stellar record, but finally the then-scrappy Cornish School of the Arts admitted him. “I was broke, living in a shitty little apartment and hangin’ out with homeless dudes drinking beer behind gas stations,” he says.

Reared in Pasadena’s tight-knit Armenian community, all Barsoumian wanted was to leave it, and L.A., behind. His “long shot” college was the Pittsburgh conservatory Carnegie-Mellon, and he got in.

The guys’ paths first crossed in 2012, when they played brothers in Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s production of Troilus and Cressida, followed by Henry V. “We had a lot of stage time together — and a lot of bar time afterward,” Barsoumian says, grinning.

As we’re eating, a girl approaches the table. Her smile is so wide, it’s crinkling her eyes almost closed. She tells them she loved the play and knew they weren’t American (“They wouldn’t prounouce those names so well if they were American”) before asking if Monsef’s mustache is real. It brings up an interesting-slash-frustrating topic, one both actors know well — typecasting.

“There’s so much more to both of us in our life experience. There’s so much more I can play than Terriorist #1,” Monsef says. “That’s why I love this play. We still can represent a culture that’s not either of ours, but close. And still talk like we talk. No accents, no need to do anything that ends up separating us from the audience.”

It’s to Joseph’s credit that a fictional story has sent many patrons off into the night wondering if it “really happened.” It’s to Barsoumian and Monsef’s that a play set so long ago and in such a faraway place is so relatable.

“The play’s so good, I don’t ever doubt its strength,” Barsoumian adds. “Giovanna said this the first day: ‘We know the play’s good, so if this isn’t good, it’s our fault.’”

They’re off the hook.

Guards at the Taj is now playing in the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse. To purchase tickets, please click here.


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