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'Russian Troll Farm' review — meeting the faces behind the Twitter bots

Read our review of Russian Troll Farm: A Workplace Comedy off Broadway, a new comedy play by Sarah Gancher, which plays at Vineyard Theatre through February 25.

Caroline Cao
Caroline Cao

Russian Troll Farm: A Workplace Comedy, a satirical play by Sarah Gancher, plants its seed into a fertile field of social media trolling. After a virtual early-pandemic production, the show has since materialized at Vineyard Theatre, directed by Darko Tresnjak. It grows a compelling, if mixed, yield.

Some background: Starting in 2014, the St. Petersburg, Russia Internet Research Agency – the title troll farm – had a directive: Sow division among the American people. They doubled down their efforts during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, composing fake tweets to stir up voter apathy and division. More than 50,000 fake Twitter accounts and 3 million tweets later, the U.S. watched as Donald Trump became president. Russian Troll Farm follows five IRA workers' daily exploits as they toxicify Twitter threads with conspiracy theories, vengeful memes, and flame wars. (Gancher’s program note dares you to distinguish between the real IRA tweets and the playwright’s fake ones heard on stage.)

The play's trolls are as “Russian” as the blatant non-Russian accents of the satirical movie Death of Stalin, instead carved from American sitcom archetypes. (Maybe symbolic — didn’t angry American tweeters supply the trolls with material first?) They include exhausted ex-journalist Marsha (Renata Friedman), robotic and Vulcan-coiffed Egor (deadpan master Haskell King), fratty Steve (a blustery John Lavelle), and the amiable supervisor Nikolai (Hadi Tabbal). Their domineering boss, the 70something Ljuba (Oscar nominee Christine Lahti), ensures they keep their social media slang, quotas, and demographics on track.

Alexander Dodge's scenic design recalls a sparse staging of The Office. The minimalist IRA glows a fluorescent white and is decorated with a photo of Putin, a map, and a hallway window. Jared Mezzocchi’s tweet projections and live video feeds drench the office space like rainwater shimmering on a window.

Splitting the intermission-free play into four parts is an organized method of easing us from one character study to another as they dip in and out of coworker quarrels, supervisor reproach, and political scheming (both on an international and in-office scale). Each part highlights a character’s degree of investment in the American politics they’re influencing. That interest varies, but one thing unites them: They’re building a narrative for themselves.

The first part follows a doomed rom-com affair between Marsha and Nikolai. The chemistry isn’t quite there, but their conversations about constructing stories to implant in their conspiracy-hungry audiences' heads are brilliant.

The subsequent three parts spiral into genre shifts and provocative exchanges, starting with the pasty Egor revealing how much he enjoys occupying Black-led social justice Twitter, getting a taste of activism and release from Putin-mandated conformity. Soon after, Steve delivers a screed on purging the world of feminism and movements that uplift the marginalized. The final part sees a cutthroat Lahti unveil the backstory behind Ljuba’s tyrannical, conformist mentality.

These compelling characterizations, workplace antics, and soap opera dabs twist into an allegorical finale (conveyed by a costume change), which dilutes the play's finer points. The closing beat might have hit stronger if it amplified the play’s idiosyncrasies, not reduced them.

Undeniably, a real-world sequel to Russian Troll Farm is playing out in real time. Consider the fascism that runs rampant on Twitter after billionaire Elon Musk’s takeover, while Russia wages its disinformation war alongside its military assault on Ukraine. It’s an uncomfortable thought that Gancher might find material there.

Russian Troll Farm is at Vineyard Theatre through February 25.

Photo credit: Christine Lahti and Haskell King in Russian Troll Farm: A Workplace Comedy. (Photo by Carol Rosegg)

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