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A CurtainUp Review
Describe the Night
By Elyse Sommer
The play is epic, both in terms of its length and scope. Over the course of three hours, we follow the interwoven stories of seven characters that range across ninety years of Russian history, from 1920 to 2010.
Joseph is a good enough storyteller to insure that this is a unified and absorbing historic drama even though it jumps back and forth in time and setting. In fact, theater goers willing to stretch themselves, will find this non-linear view of Russia's complex history through a personal lens more effective than a more straightforward approach would be.
Fortunately, the Atlantic Theater production is again helmed by director Giovanna Sardelli, who's been with Describe the Night, since it's initial staging as part of the New York University Graduate Acting Program and its subsequent world premiere at Houston's Alley Theater. Sardelli and her design team have created a simple but dynamic environment that visually and aurally supports and unifies the scene-to-scene locale and time shifts. I can't recall a piece of scenery that more effectively ratchets up tension and drama than the ever present upstage door of Tim Mackabee's set.
Sardelli has also assembled a top notch cast that includes Danny Burstein and Zach Grenier in the two key roles of Isaac and Nikolai. These Broadway veterans open the play with a meeting in a forest in Poland during a Polish-Russian territorial skirmish (the 1919 to 1921 Polish Soviet War). Nikolai is an officer in the cavalry which Isaac is accompanying as a journalist.
Isaac and Nikolai's opening verbal duet lays the groundwork for their ensuing relationship and the play's theme. The friendship of these very different men will be tested by sex, lies and political expedience and have a ripple effect on those directly and indirectly connected to their lives. The initial interchange has Isaac explaining that what he writes in his notebook represents a writer's liberty to lie, or make up stories. That scene expands to take us to pivotal historic events of 1937, 1940, 1989 and 2010 and includes Isaac, Nikolai and those closely connected to them; for example, a scene during the 2010 crash of a plane carrying most of the Polish government's officials, brings on Mariya (Nadia Bowers), a reporter and Feliks (Stephen Stocking, a car rental proprietor who happened to witness the explosion. The march through Russia's history also clarifies Joseph's thematic take on how a fiction writer's technique of making up stories tends to be used as a weapon to rewrite the truth.
Isaac is the play's most obvious real life character, the renowned Jewish Russian writer Isaac Babel who was killed during one of Stalin's bloody purges against traitors and Jews at the beginning of World War II. Nikolai's real life counterpart is Nikolai Yezhov, who became the chief of the pre-KGB police force and with whose wife Isaac Babel did have an affair. The playwright has used this background to enrich his play with a grand passion.
Thanks to wig designer Leah Loukas and the atmospheric lighting by Lap Chi Chu, Burstein and Grenier manage to look convincingly like very young men they are in that first scene. Like Burstein and Grenier, Tina Benko is eminently watchable as Nikolai's wife with her power to foresee the future and quite brilliantly segues into an older version of that glamorous woman.
Another sexual liaison involves Nikolai's granddaughter Urzula (Rebecca Naomi Jones) and Vova (Max Gordon Moore) an ambitious KBG operative assigned by Nikolai to make sure she doesn't realize her dream of escaping the Russian controlled East Germany. While Vova's obsessive passion for Urzula is fictional, this character is nevertheless an obvious stand-in for Vladimir Putin who rose from a career as a KGB operative to become the current ruler of the country more than ever in the news these days.
Since Describe the Night was written before the 2016 election, this makes it easy to credit the playwright with the same sort of foresight as Nikolai's wife Yevgenia. However, though Donald Trump's questionable connection to Putin's Russia and his habit of turning facts into lies, do add a timely edge, this is not a piece of dramatic ephemera like Beau Willimon's The Parisian Woman . Sad to say, Russian as well as other nations' histories are rife with well-known examples of those in charge playing games with the truth to suit their own dictatorial purposes. Both Putin and Trump are merely the latest players in the more depressing chapters of the world's history book.
Ultimately, the star character connecting everything and everyone in this play is not a person but the journal Babel is scribbling in at the beginning scene. Though an object passed down from generation to generation is a familiar dramatic device, it serves this play especially well as a reminder that subjective observation. can be a truly truthful and lasting reminder of what really happened — that's even though Vova, after taking hold of Babel's journal that's been given to Urzula, dismisses it with "all he does is describe things."
If there's any weak spot in this otherwise smartly constructed and presented drama, it's in the final scene which works too hard to put everything into a neat package. It would also be nice if the audience were provided the audience with a detailed fact sheet as they exit the theater.
Links to other Rajiv Joseph plays reviewed at Curtainup
Gruesome Playground Injuries
Animals Out Of Paper
Guards at the Taj
Animals Out Of Paper
Search CurtainUp in the box below
Describe the Night by Rajiv Joseph
Directed by Giovanna Sardelli
Cast: Tina Benko (Yevgenia), Nadia Bowers (Mariya, Mrs. Petrovna), Danny Burstein (Isaac), Rebecca Naomi Jones (Urzula), Max Gordon Moore (Vova), Stephen Stocking (Feliks)
Costumes: Amy Clark
Lighting: Lap Chi Chu,
Sound and original compositions by Daniel Kluger
Wigs: Leah Loukas
Fight Choreography: David Brimmer
Stage Manager: Lori Lundquist
Running Time: 3 hours, including 2 intermissions
Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater 336 West 20th Street
From 11/10/17; opening 12/05/17; closing 12/24/17
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at December 1st press preview.
Here's a list of the titles, dates and settings as projected (but not in the program)before each scene:
1. Lies— 1920 — Polish Countryside (Isaac, Nikolai)
2. Car Rental— 2010 — Smolensk (Feliks, Mariya)
3. Fate — 1937 — Moscow (Isaac, Nikolai, Yevgenia)
4. Bureau 42 — 1989 — Moscow (Vova, Nikolai)
1. Blood – 1989 – Dresden (Vova, Yevgenia, Urzula)
2. Asylum — 1940 — Moscow (Nikolai, Isaac)
3. Escape — 1940 — Moscow (Yevgenia, Isaac)
4. Glasnost — 1989 — Moscow (Vova, Nikolai)
ACT III 1. Freedom — 1989 — Dresden (Yevgenia, Vova)
2. More Lies — — Moscow (Isaac, Nikolai)
3. Silence mdash; 2010 — Moscow (Mariya, Vova)
4. Laundry — 2010 — Moscow (Yevgenia, Feliks, Mrs. Petrovna)
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