Authoritarianism Rises Off-Broadway in “Describe the Night”

Playwright Rajiv Joseph offers an allegory for today's corrosive political climate and totalitarian rumblings.

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Danny Burstein and Zach Grenier in Rajiv Joseph's "Describe the Night." Photo: Aaron R. Foster.

It’s often said, wryly, that everything in life depends on timing and lighting. Which brings us to Describe the Night, Rajiv Joseph’s new play, running Off-Broadway, for which Lap Chi Chu’s lighting is perfectly suited in this Atlantic Theatre Company production.

More notable, however, is the timing. Describe the Night‘s development path began with a student production in 2014 at the NYU’s Graduate Acting Program. That means Joseph saw his play on its feet well before anyone could have known that a Trump Administration would launch an unrelenting attack on truth. And his brilliant, disturbing drama, in which the effects of lies and truth are well-mooted, looks like an allegory of the increasingly loud, totalitarian rumblings coming out of today’s corrosive political climate. So was Joseph prescient? Did he know, three years ago, where we were headed? Maybe yes, maybe no.

A gloomy fantasia based on actual people and events that took place in Russia, Poland and Germany between 1920 and 2010, Describe the Night registers as an anxious warning, an example of the it-can-happen-here genre. Surely this is how Joseph intends us to take in his play. With the term “fake news” resounding in our ears every day, we do.

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The play begins in 1920. We meet Jewish writer Isaac Babel (Danny Burstein, in a stunning change of pace from his musical ventures on Broadway) and Nikolai Yezhov (Zach Grenier, equally stunning), who ran Joseph Stalin’s secret police, the precursor to the KGB. We see that Nikolai has followed Isaac to a field. He is concerned that Isaac, writing in a diary, has witnessed him murdering an old man and is about to report his observations. Their charged conversation instantly becomes about the difference and effectiveness of truth and lies.

The complex relationship between these men (Nikolai admits he’s grown to love Isaac but later points a pistol at him) evolves scene by scene. For example, they become a trio when Isaac encounters Nikolai’s wife, Yevgenia (Tina Benko), and an infidelity occurs. It’s also important to remember that all these figures existed — as did Vova (Max Gordon Moore), a KGB agent and, later, a powerful official. (Joseph’s script labels each scene a “chapter,” perhaps in deference to the literary achievements of the towering Babel.)

Other characters brought out by the playwright to enlarge his landscape, meanwhile, come out of his imagination. These include Urzula (Rebecca Naomi Jones), Yevgenia’s granddaughter, and Feliks (Stephen Stocking), a scared mechanic who, in 2010, becomes involved with Mariya (Nadia Bowers), a journalist who has just witnessed a plane crash and retrieved a diary from a dying woman — who happens to be Urzula. Naturally, Urzula’s diary belonged to Isaac; it’s the symbolic thread attaching one endangered generation to the next. It’s part of Joseph’s urgent message regarding indisputable influence of the past on both the present and the future. We dismiss this chain of related events at our own peril.

Indeed, Joseph shows us these characters in certain years between 1920 and 2010, such as 1937, 1939, 1940 and 1989, to make his point. The scenes from the late 1930s and 1940 continue to follow Isaac and Nikolai, including the imprisonment of Yevgenia in an asylum. Then, in 1989, we meet Yevgenia again as Communism enters its final throes in the USSR. Now a bent nonagenarian, she encourages Urzula’s escape-to-freedom plan when Vova, who is in on the scheme, becomes attracted to her. (This unfolds as they slurp a bloody soup of dead leeches.) Some of the 2010 scenes find Vova and Mariya in Smolensk, where they confront each other over the real Katyn Forest massacre.

Simply reading about the ground that Joseph covers in Describe the Night may be confusing. On stage, it is less so, even though Joseph mixing up the scenes instead of presenting them chronologically. The backing-and-forthing can sometimes feel like in a car constantly shifting gears, but one learns to trust in the ride. This is because Joseph’s probing mind can’t be sold short: his hooking into these worrying pages of world history, and his spin on them, is a gift.

Giovanna Sardelli’s robust direction of the troupe is of surpassing significance, as are Tim Macabee’s sets, Amy Clarke’s costumes and Daniel Kluger’s sound.

In nerve-wracking times like these, we ask the question: Can good art change the world? Those of us who are convinced art possesses this capacity can be grateful for enterprises such as Describe the Night as at attempt to beat back menacing waves. Joseph’s pithy examination of truth versus lies is cogently welcome.