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Russian Troll Farm: A Workplace Comedy

Theatre Review by James Wilson - February 8, 2024

Christine Lahti and Haskell King
Photo by Carol Rosegg
The subtitle of Sarah Gancher's Russian Troll Farm: A Workplace Comedy, currently running at the Vineyard Theatre (and in association with Geva Theatre Center), calls to mind a host of sitcoms set in offices, schools, bars, and television studios. With its references to burgeoning romances among workers, oily and deceitful staff members, and the inclusion of a threateningly unthreatening (or is that an unthreateningly threatening?) boss, the play calls to mind familiar and beloved shows like "The Office," "Parks and Recreation," "30 Rock," and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show."

Rather than assembled for the occupational purpose of selling paper products, negotiating bureaucracies to beautify a community, or producing television shows, for instance, the characters in Russian Troll Farm are united in one vocational aim: Ensure victory for Donald Trump in the 2016 election using any duplicitous means possible through Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

The play is set in Saint Petersburg in the months leading up to the election and mainly takes place in a conference room that has been converted into an office. (Alexander Dodge's suitably antiseptic and angular scenic design and Marcus Doshi's austere and institutional fluorescent lighting contribute to the sense of ordinariness that is juxtaposed with the dark, political chicaneries.) Except for a photo of a smiling, seemingly benevolent Vladimir Putin adorning the back wall, the Internet Research Agency (based on a real Russian company) is at once recognizable, and by sitcom standards, fairly anodyne. You can almost hear the laugh track tuning up in the background.

The trolls of the play are also conventional figures from workplace comedies. Egor (Haskell King) is antisocial and single-mindedly committed to producing enough fake news posts to win a microwave. Steve (John Lavelle), the office instigator, is quick with a correction and nonchalantly shares updates on the effects of the job on his stressed bowels.

The newest member of the troll team is Masha (Renata Friedman), who has been transferred from another division and immediately raises the sexual tension in the office. She and Nikolai (Hadi Tabbal), a frustrated novelist who is married to the daughter of a powerful Russian oligarch, immediately hit it off. Sparks fly as the two create a series of viral posts that link Hillary Clinton with child sex trafficking and tunnels underneath Disneyland (another reference to the real-life trolling). Before long, the heady excitement of generating fake news leads to real and potentially dangerous physical passions.

Overseeing the operation is Ljuba (Christine Lahti), the 70-something boss who harbors dangerous personal secrets but conceals them within her steely demeanor and impenetrable emotional armor. (Linda Cho's elegant, no-nonsense business suits make the character even more formidable.) And to mix metal metaphors, she runs the office with an iron fist, tossing pink slips like confetti.

Gancher divides the play into four discreet sections, describing the first as "a workplace comedy" replete with the requisite office romance. The second is presented as a "Kafkaesque nightmare"; the third a "Shakespearean revenge play"; and the fourth is "the love child of Brecht and Annie Baker." Director Darko Tresnjak creates discreet moods for each part, which focus on stories concerning separate characters. Taken altogether, though, the effect is confusing. That is, just as the audience is getting to know the characters and settling into the shifting world of each part, operatic music and a barrage of tweets alters the scene. (Darron L. West and Beth Lake are the co-sound designers, and Jared Mezzocchi designed the video and projections.)

This is a rare play that would benefit from being longer. The underlying dangers are made creepier with the smirking Putin hovering above, but the effects are not quite plumbed deeply enough. In addition, the character machinations and intended takeovers are confusing and seem to be riffs on the old Boris and Natasha scenes from the Bullwinkle cartoons. The play's premise all but screams out for the Netflix episodic-series treatment that would deepen the relationships and characterizations.

Tresnjak, however, draws fine performances from all the actors, but Lahti in particular is stunning as Ljuba, whom we come to find out is both a victim and beneficiary of Soviet-style suppression. In the final part (the Brecht/ Annie Baker-love child section), she gives a breathtaking and heartbreaking monologue delivered in the second person as if it were an out-of-body experience. The extended narrative can be best compared with the dramatic version of a full-throated aria. We learn that, when Ljuba's parents were killed for being traitors, she was raised by her dispassionate aunt who instilled in her stoic Soviet ideals. She explains:

You are a child of eight and you love the Soviet Union.
At the end of the school year you get a certificate from your teacher: Most Patriotic.
The thought of the glorious future can make you tear up with pride.
Your aunt reminds you: don't cry.

The most frightening aspect of Ljuba's story is that she sees and understands her complicity in the oppressive regime, but she is past the point of caring. Instead, she will simply play her part "to make sure the news is a good show," so Putin will continue to thrive.

Of course, the impressive fruits of labor by the staff members of the Internet Research Agency are well known. If this play isn't fully satisfying as workplace comedy or as a call-to-arms in the lead-up to another election, Gancher does do something extraordinary: There were moments in which I felt fleeting twinges of sympathy (and a little bit of awe in their ingenious creativity) for real-life Russian trolls.

Russian Troll Farm: A Workplace Comedy
Through February 25, 2024
Vineyard Theatre
108 E. 15th Street, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: