REVIEW: Russian fact and fiction in “Describe the Night”
I sure hope playwright Rajiv Joseph (“Guards at the Taj”) is not planning a trip to Russia any time soon, for his latest play, “Describe the Night”, which opened at the Atlantic Theater Company on Tuesday night, is of the type likely to be labeled seditious and met with government sanction. Were he Russian, I suspect we might be counting the days until he turns up mysteriously dead.
Thankfully, Mr. Joseph is American. And “Describe the Night” has opened in the United States, where it is not (yet) illegal to skewer the government or its leaders. This epic new play unfolds patiently, and smartly, over the course of three acts, deftly examining how casual and intentional disregard for fact and truth, echoing across decades, shapes reality and ultimately permits autocracy. It is, in a word: timely.
Amid a sea of 90-minute (or less) offerings, I had almost forgotten what it is like to experience an ambitious and sweeping new work that grapples with big ideas and takes its time to do so. Summoning the same magical, significant tone of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America”, the 12 scenes and nearly three hours of “Describe the Night” shift back and forth between 1920, 1937, 1940, 1989, and 2010 in Poland, Russia, and East Germany, as the lives of seven characters—some real, historical figures, others inventions—connect in ways that traverse time, place, fact, and fiction.
Mr. Joseph weaves a story too impossible and unknown to be true, and yet one that describes life under the Soviet Union and in modern Russia as well as anything I have seen.
The play opens as Isaac (the writer Isaac Babel) (Danny Burstein), a Russian Jew serving as a wire-service journalist on the frontlines of the Polish-Russo war in 1920, sits in a quiet field on the Polish countryside, writing in his journal. He prompts himself to “describe the night”, a simple but fraught task that represents the central theme of the play: the relationship between observation and truth, storytelling and history.
He meets Nikolai (future NKVD—Stalin’s secret police—leader Nikolai Yezhov) (Zach Grenier), an accomplished, violent, and inebriated Captain in the Russian Red Cavalry. After the two spar over Isaac’s reporting on an axe (or was it a shovel?)-wielding man Nikolai killed earlier in the day—Nikolai’s antipathy for writers made clear—Isaac asks Nikolai to “describe the night” too, positing: “if we both describe the same thing at the same time, will one of our descriptions be more true than the other?”
It is this question, our interpretation of reality and how it can be used as a tool for mass shaping of opinion, that haunts the rest of the play, from Stalin’s murderous reign to the rise of Putin, who appears, though not explicitly, as Vova (a nickname for Vladimir) (Max Gordon Moore), a low-level KBG bureaucrat in 1989 who by 2010 has become the President of Russia.
A young Vova carries on a brief affair with Urzula (Rebecca Naomi Jones), the granddaughter of Isaac and his lover, Nikolai’s wife (true story) Yevgenia (Tina Benko), who longs to escape to the west. Feliks (Stephen Stocking), an orphan, is a car rental salesman in Smolensk, Poland who crosses paths with a journalist, Mariya (Nadia Bowers), and Mrs. Petrovna, a Moscow laundress with an eye patch (also Nadia Bowers).
This cacophony of characters might seem confusing and disjointed, but “Describe the Night” is a mosaic. Isaac’s journal appears in each scene: the downing of a Polish airliner carrying senior members of the government, witnessed by Feliks and Mariya; the fall of the Berlin Wall, observed by Urzula; the ultimate fates of “dissident” writer Isaac and journalist Mariya (Nadia Bowers) before the silencing hands of the government; and a (hopefully fake) bowl of a soup made by Yevgenia called “Qureshi” that contains live leeches who suck your blood before exploding, all figure in a complicated but taught plot that, as a whole, paints a portrait of the moral ambiguity that plagues modern Russia and allows for a thug like Putin to serve as its leader.
Director Giovanna Sardelli paces the play well, and exacts great performances from the ensemble cast, notably Mr. Burstein’s evolution from tentative young writer to self-assured author-activist, and Ms. Benko’s Yevgenia, a winsome and colorful young housewife turned hunched-over, 99-year-old grandmother.
I found the play deeply engrossing and mysterious, as it slowly but steadily revealed how mass conspiracy theory and propaganda operate on a micro-level, in small, seemingly insignificant interactions. We can all get caught up in the big picture and forget that most of life is not a big picture. Sometimes the simplest act, describing the night, can be the most subversive.
Bottom Line: “Describe the Night” is an ambitious, epically sweeping new play by Rajiv Joseph that examines the relationship between observation and truth, storytelling and history. Deeply engrossing, complex, and taught, it spins a chilling reality and paints a portrait of the moral ambiguity that plagues modern Russia.
“Describe the Night”
Atlantic Theater Company
Linda Gross Theater
336 West 20th Street
New York, NY 10011
Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (two brief intermissions)
Opening Night: December 5, 2017
Final Performance: December 24, 2017