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Describe the Night

Theatre Review by David Hurst - December 5, 2017

Zach Grenier, Danny Burstein, and Tina Benko
Photo by Ahron R Foster

Pulitzer-nominee Rajiv Joseph's new play at The Atlantic, Describe the Night, is a sweeping, political potboiler spanning 90 years of history and intertwining the lives of seven characters over three time periods and locations. Combining history, myth and conspiracy in a time-traveling thriller, the characters include real historical figures as well as creations of Joseph's fertile imagination. Describe the Night is a "Russian fantasia" that aspires to the brilliance of Angels in America . . . and sometimes brushes up against it.

Commissioned and developed by the Alley Theatre in Houston, Describe the Night received its world premiere on schedule in September despite Hurricane Harvey forcing the play's relocation from the Alley's Neuhaus to the University of Houston's Quintero Theatre. As she did in Houston (as well as all its workshop incarnations at NYU's Graduate Acting Program and TheatreWorks in Palo Alto, CA), Describe the Night has been directed with clarity and flair by Giovanna Sardelli with a bravura cast who are all superb.

The through-line in Describe the Night is the life and work of Isaac Babel (1894-1940), wonderfully portrayed by the astonishing, six time Tony-nominee, Danny Burstein. Considered one of the greatest Russian writers of his era, Isaac is traveling the Polish countryside with the Red Cavalry as Joseph's three-act epic opens in 1920 (Lies). The cavalry includes Nikolai Yezhov (1895-1940), expertly brought to life by Zach Grenier, and the two comrades muse over Isaac's ability to tell lies as well as the contents of his journal while sharing a bottle of stolen wine. The lies between them and about them add up quickly as Nikolai rises through the ranks of the Soviet government and become Stalin's chief of the Soviet Secret Police.

From 1920 we jump to Smolensk on April 10, 2010 (Car Rental), where a jittery rental agent, Feliks (Stephen Stocking, who played the same role in Houston), and a nervous reporter, Mariya (a terrific Nadia Bowers), hide from authorities following the crash of a Polish Air Force plane carrying the Polish president, his wife and most of the Polish government and military's leadership. It turns out Feliks has witnessed the crash and helps Mariya escape, but not before giving her an important item to take with her.

The scene shifts to Moscow in 1937 (Fate) where we find Isaac and Nikolai in conversation with Nikolai's wife, Yevgenia (the ravishing Tina Benko). Yevgenia foretells Isaac's future and is soon swept up in an affair with him.

And, finally, we're transported to Dresden in 1989 (Blood) during the days before the Berlin wall fell and Glasnost replaced The Cold War. Yevgenia, her granddaughter, Urzula (a luminous Rebecca Naomi Jones), and a ruthless KGB agent, Vova (the deliciously creepy Max Gordon Moore), all vie for control as Urzula plots her escape to the West and Putin, I mean Vova, who has secretly been spying on Urzula and fallen in love with her, begins his tyrannical rise to power.

As he does in all his work, including Animals Out of Paper, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, Gruesome Playground Injuries, The North Pool and Guards at the Taj just to name a few, Joseph creates provocative characters actors love to inhabit. The outsized Describe the Night is no exception and the entire cast devours their roles with equal parts gusto and glee. The role of Yevgenia, however, spans more than 50 years and—in a nod to the great Meryl Streep—requires an actress to go from glamorous, Russian socialite to withered old woman. An exquisite Tina Benko deserves special praise for her dazzling and fearless portrayal.

When he wrote Describe the Night, Joseph couldn't have known how prescient his play would be in light of our country's current administration and their tenuous grasp on history and truth—let alone the Russian scandal which continues to brew. His writing is a wondrous amalgam of reality and fantasy, boldly bringing characters back from the dead in a flourish of "magical thinking" that allows Nikolai and Yevgenia to continue their journeys beyond their Soviet histories. To be sure, it's complicated storytelling and some may find it too dry or too soulless for their taste. Additionally, at three hours it also challenges the shortened attention span our society suffers from as well. But be brave and take the plunge. Writing this provocative and imaginative deserves our attention and admiration.

Describe the Night
Through December 24
Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
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