Playwright Rajiv Joseph aims high in this ambitious, pertinent, resonant, sometimes compelling but often confusing drama that sprawls over 90 years (and three hours), taking place in Poland, Russia, and East Germany, branching out surreally from its roots in actual historical events. The central and most intriguing of these true stories is the relationship between the Russian Jewish writer Isaac Babel (portrayed by Danny Burstein, last on Broadway in “Fiddler on the Roof”) and the head of Stalin’s Soviet Secret Police Nikolai Yezhov (Zach Grenier, best known as the aggressive divorce lawyer David Lee in “The Good Wife.”
In Joseph’s telling, the two Russians meet when both are young, in 1920, on the Polish front. As the play begins, Isaac, a war correspondent, is writing in his journal, trying to …describe the night. This for him is an exercise to improve his writing. Nikolai, a commander in the Red Cavalry, has gone looking for him, to check up on whether and how he will write about an incident in which he killed an old man. Nikolai grabs hold of the journal and is initially outraged, but winds up impressed, by Babel’s storytelling. But Nikolai sees them only as lies – he admires how well Isaac can lie — because he’s too literal-minded to have, or truly value, an imagination.
Nobody would say that of Rajiv Joseph, best known as the author of “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” which brought Robin Williams to Broadway in a story about the American involvement in Iraq. In “Describe the Night,” Joseph imagines a complicated tale that traces Nikolai and Isaac through the years, but adds in fictional characters and fictional events and an additional storyline connected tangentially if at all. The play jumps around in time–from 1920 to 2010 back to 1937, forward again to 1989…and that’s just in the first of its three Acts. In a scene set in 1989, a young Soviet bureaucrat named Vovo (Max Gordon Moore) confronts Nikolai, who is now 99 years old, and tells him that he, Vovo, will replace him as “Chairman of Bureau 42” because of Nikolai’s crimes against the Soviet state, which include resurrecting himself after being declared an unperson in 1940. “Being alive when you are dead,” Vovo tells Nikolai.” This is against the law.”
The actual Yezhov did indeed fall out of favor with Stalin in 1940, but, as we’re told in a fact-sheet distributed upon leaving the theater, Nikolai Yezhov was killed that year.
So, yes, Yezhov was indeed dead in 1989 as Vovo accuses him of being, dead for 49 years. Did Vovo mean his comment to be metaphorical; did the playwright mean the comment to be meta-theatrical? But how are the theatergoers meant to take it?
The true story of Babel and Yezhov seems arresting enough: Babel had an affair with Yezhov’s wife, Yevgenia. When Yezhov found out, he put Babel under surveillance, which led to his arrest; Yezhov also put his wife in a mental institution. Much of this Joseph dramatizes effectively, but he doesn’t stop there. Yevgenia died of an overdose in 1938, as we’re told in the fact sheet. In the play, Tina Benko portrays her as someone who not only predicts the future; she lives into it. We see her at 110. Both she and her husband, in other words, live old enough for their stories to converge with the stories of others caught up in historical events of more recent vintage. Her granddaughter Urzula (Rebecca Naomi Jones) breaks free during Glasnost and the fall of the Berlin Wall. A journalist named Mariya (Nadia Bowers) witnesses the 2010 plane crash at Smolensk, which killed the president of Poland and other Polish government officials as they were traveling on their way to mark the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre, in which at least 20,000 Poles were killed. For years, the Soviet Union had claimed that Nazis were responsible for the Katyn massacre; only in 1990, during glasnost and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, did the Russian government take responsibility. Conspiracy theories quickly develop around the crash. Vovo eventually interrogates Mariya with a velvet-gloved viciousness, to probe what she knows. The Soviet secret police bureaucrat has now become a powerful politician, a Putin-like figure
One can see what Rajiv Joseph is about here – erasing the boundaries of time, pushing the Stalinist era flush up against the current day, to show how similar the paranoia and lies; mixing fact and imagination, to drive home how both facts and imagination are under threat. There is resonance when the old Stalinist Nikolai says to the new Putinist Vovo: “When the world is a gang fight, people want a gangster to lead them.” Much is made of Isaac Babel’s diary, which passes from one character to another – as if to say that art can’t be killed. The playwright’s points are well taken; his ambition is admirable. If the production of “Describe the Night” at the Atlantic doesn’t hold together as one would wish, you leave wanting to encourage the playwright to keep going with it — to paraphrase “Angels of America,” a comparable but more lucid work of breadth and depth and sprawl, intelligence and passion: Let the great rework begin.
Describe the Night
Atlantic Theater Company
By Rajiv Joseph
Directed by Giovanna Sardelli
Sets by Tim Mackabee, costumes by Amy Clark, sighting by Lap Chi Chu, sound and original music by Daniel Kluger, wig designer by Leah Loukas, fighting choreography by J. David Brimmer.
Cast: Tina Benko as Yevgenia, Nadia Bowers as Mariya / Mrs. Petrovna, Danny Burstein as Isaac, Zach Grenier as Nickolai, Rebecca Naomi Jones as Urzula, Max Gordon Moore as Vova, Stephen Stocking as Felix