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Theatre in Review: Describe the Night (Atlantic Theater)

Max Gordon Moore, Zach Grenier. Photo. Ahron R. Foster

A journal by the writer Isaac Babel links a gallery of characters across nine decades, leaving behind a trail of treachery, deception, and acts of terrorism in Rajiv Joseph's ambitious historical drama, the pieces of which are revealed slowly and out of order, the better to keep us intrigued. Actually, we'd be more intrigued if the people onstage were more engaging, not just figures in a mural depicting the rise and fall of the Soviet Union and its replacement by a nearly equally fearsome oligarchy. Then again, playwriting of this breadth and intellectual interest doesn't come along every day.

We first meet Babel in Poland, in 1920, as the Polish-Soviet War is in full, bloody swing. Babel, a member of the Russian Red Cavalry, can't suppress his journalistic instincts, and, to pass the time, he is giving himself a series of writing exercises. (One of them furnishes the play with its title.) He is accosted by Nikolai, a sergeant, who has caused a commotion by killing someone in front of a crowd. (The details of this event are held back until very late, for reasons that never become clear.) The sergeant is a vulgarian with a mean streak, but, somehow, he and Babel strike up a friendship that lasts through the years, even when Babel is a celebrated man of letters and Nikolai, whose last name is Yezhov, is the head of the NKVD, making him Stalin's head hatchet man. Babel will eventually seduce Nikolai's wife, Yevgenia, and, as Nikolai falls out of favor, the fortunes of all three will be drastically affected.

But what does Babel's journal, which passes into Yevgenia's hands, have to do with Urzula, a Polish woman living in Dresden in 1989 -- and why is she being tracked by a KGB agent named Vova, who also lusts after her? And why is the journal being carried by a victim of the notorious plane crash that, in 2010 took out the heads of the Polish government? And why is Mariya, a journalist who witnessed the crash, so frightened for her life? And why is she terrified to have the journal in her possession?

The answers to all these questions will be revealed and we will come to understand the chain of circumstances that link the characters in a web of lies, conspiracies, and survival strategies. I won't say much more about the plot, because there is considerable satisfaction to be had as the various puzzle pieces click into place. But be warned that it takes a significantly long time -- the play is divided into three acts over three hours -- and during the first half, you may wonder more than once exactly who these people are and why you are supposed to care about them. Even when Joseph is trading in historical fact, some of the relationships onstage lack conviction. It's hard to see why Babel, a cultivated man, would put up with Nikolai, who comes across as an unreconstructed brute with little or no interest in ideas or the arts. And although it's true that Babel did have an affair with Yevgenia, his brazen attempt at seducing her in front of her husband -- he has her "audition" for a film -- beggars belief. (Would you really risk upsetting the man who could send you off to Siberia -- or worse -- with a flick of the pen? Wouldn't you be at least subtler about it?) Similarly, there's not enough to time to fully render the complex love-hate relationship that develops between Urzula and Vova, and after a slam-bang introduction, Mariya drops out of the action for so long that it's easy to forget about her.

Even as one wonders if the play might have benefited from a more streamlined structure, there's pleasure to be had in seeing how, for example, fanciful jottings in Babel's journal, about leech soup and the powers of prophecy it supposedly confers, are interpreted by successive readers as factual -- and how this crazy supposition seemingly comes true. (A magic realism strand is woven throughout the action, not always successfully.) Even when the play is taking its own sweet time to get to anywhere, one can enjoy a cast that is adept at hopscotching across the decades, sometimes playing multiple roles (or, in some cases, disguised versions of characters we've already seen). Considering that his writings propel the plot, the role of Babel is notably underwritten -- we never get much sense of his political convictions or his life in Stalinist Russia -- but Danny Burstein brings his natural magnetism to bear on the role. As Babel runs afoul of the regime, taking desperate steps to save Yevgenia from the mental institution where the now-disgraced Nikolai has placed her, the actor's performance grows in stature. Tina Benko lends her patented high-comedy style to the role of Yevgenia -- during the audition scene, she protests, "But I am not an actress," in the most actressy way possible, all but bouncing across the room -- and she finds real poignancy in the character's ever-increasing troubles. Zach Grenier gives Nikolai a permanent undertone of menace, even in the scenes depicting the fanciful fate that Joseph has assigned him.

Also making solid contributions are Nadia Bowers as Mariya, who flees for her life but who also knows how and when to deal out revenge to a bully; Rebecca Naomi Jones as Urzula, who uses her sense of cunning, learned from her crafty grandmother, to keep her eye on the prize of escape to the West; Max Gordon Moore, whose Vova is a surprisingly tormented tormentor (and whose true identity is one of the script's biggest shockers); and Stephen Stocking as a young man who helps out Mariya and lives to regret it.

Helping to provide a unifying metaphor for all these plot strands is Tim Mackabee's set, an institutional-looking room that, from head height on up, contains row upon row of file drawers and boxes. It's an apt image for a play featuring a cast of spies, intelligence bureaucrats, and creative writers, each of them angling to have his or her own say about history. Lap Chi Chu's lighting design artfully mixes warm incandescent washes with cold white institutional looks; he also provides colorful uplight effects on the shelves, including color chases during the scene changes, which are paced by the sound of electronic music supplied by Daniel Kluger, the composer and sound designer. Amy Clark's costumes help us keep track of which time frame the action is occurring in (and she gets bonus points for providing seamed stockings Yevgenia in the 1930s scenes).

Watching Describe the Night, one might easily conclude that history is a beartrap and we are little more than the unsuspecting animals ready to step into its claws. Regimes come and go, strongmen rise and fall, and history's winners are constantly reshuffled. Joseph ends with a pair of minor characters sharing some simple duties in a laundry. It's a suitable finale to this pessimist's admittedly persuasive view of the last century (as well as the first decade of this one). There are the seeds of a more powerful play inside Describe the Night, but, still, it's a risky, rangy work that asks a pertinent question: How does one get by when the world is run by madmen? -- David Barbour


(6 December 2017)

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