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Zach Grenier, Danny Burstein & Tina Benko in Describe the Night

Review of Atlantic Theater Company's Describe the Night

Donna Herman
Donna Herman

Describe the Night, currently playing at Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater, is a question for which there is no answer. Playwright Rajiv Joseph plays connect-the-dots with historical facts and figures spanning 90 years that might - or might not - have any connection, and asks us to see a familiar face in the resulting picture. And while his pen is busy hopping all over the page, it's kind of hard not to see a horrifyingly familiar image emerge from the seemingly random lines being drawn.

Although Describe the Night feels chillingly au courant with its Diogenes-like quest for the meaning of Truth, it was written in 2014. Joseph, who was fascinated by the Russian-Jewish writer Isaac Babel, had a copy of Babel's recently published journals with accounts of his experiences as a correspondent during the Russo-Polish War of 1920. Joseph wondered if there was a way to tie that into the 2010 crash of the Polish Air Force jet that killed the Polish President and First Lady in Smolensk, Russia on the 70th Anniversary of the Katyn Massacre in which the Soviet NKVD massacred over 22,000 Polish army officers. Along with director Giovanna Sardelli, he tapped NYU's Graduate Acting Program and worked with 8 students who researched and did workshops on the characters and events in Describe the Night before Joseph hammered out the script in the fall of 2014.

The use of such authentic and historically accurate events and characters like Isaac Babel (Danny Burstein), Nikolai Yezhov (Zach Grenier), the head of the Soviet NKVD and Stalin's tool for executing the Great Purge, and his wife Yevgenia Yezhov (Tina Benko), imbue Describe the Night with great plausibility. So it weaves a nice tale as the story jumps back and forth between 1937 and 1989 and 2010 and back to 1940 and the lives of these characters become intertwined with other characters like KGB agent Vova (Max Gordon Moore), which is a diminutive of the name Vladimir, who is good in Judo, stationed in Dresden in 1989, and rises to extremely high political office in Russia, and who may, or may not be an historically accurate person we would all recognize without his shirt on.

While it could have used some trimming (when was the last time you saw a new play written in three acts with two intermissions?), Describe the Night is a compelling story. And it's the real parts that are the strangest. As the saying goes - you can't make this s**t up. Although I'm fairly certain that the hallucinogenic leech soup is a fabrication of Joseph's fertile mind.

And the reason why most repressive regimes ultimately end up trying to silence artists, is that they say what they see. It doesn't take Nostradamus to divine the outcomes of certain courses of action. It shouldn't come as any surprise that in 2014 Joseph had his ancient character Nikolai Yezhov, who would have been 94 years old, telling his character Vova who is 35, in 1989:

"Every story that is told, officially, from the state, has been sheared and shaped, some might say distorted, and ultimately changed. But all that information—everything that's cut away and struck from the record? It all ends up down here. Here in Bureau 42, we have the history of the Soviet Union. The real history. This endless lair, deep beneath the streets of Moscow is a repository for The Truth. Unvarnished, untrammeled, truth..."

Which you will only be able to find if you have the right clearance.....

(Photo by Ahron R. Foster)

What the popular press says...

"Describe the Night is one of those plays that puts historical people into imagined situations and vice versa, then blends the two until you can't tell what's what. In that way it is not unlike the qureshi, in which the leeches "feast upon you and then you feast upon them." Well, "feast" may be too uplifting a word for this frankly tiresome play, which finds Mr. Joseph in the self-indulgent mode of his Guards at the Taj from 2015."
Jesse Green for New York Times

"Every once in a while, a playwright's ambitions get the better of him. That tendency is on ample display in Rajiv Joseph's new play, receiving its New York premiere at off-Broadway's Atlantic Theater Company. A would-be epic phantasmagoria taking in 90 years of Russian history and featuring characters both real and imagined, Describe the Night displays no shortage of imagination. But unlike Angels in America, to which this new work has already been compared, it lacks the emotional resonance to make us sufficiently care about its disparate characters. By the time the evening reaches its conclusion after nearly three long hours, you'll feel like you've been through a lot. But not in a good way."
Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter

"Giovanna Sardelli directs with a wide and careless brush, allowing performances to pivot harshly from the almost-human to the bizarrely comic to the coolly removed. The actors do their best to shift playing styles, but often the comic moments — and even some of the dramatic ones — are played so broad as not to be believed at all. Burstein comes closest to a character that is affectingly human, offering truths that you can believe."
Frank Rizzo for Variety

External links to full reviews from popular press...

New York Times - Hollywood Reporter - Variety

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