Rajiv Joseph's 'Describe the Night': Ambitious, Uneven,
“True is what happens,” says a confidant Russian Red Army captain to a journalist who is having a difficult time describing things he has seen, be it the night sky or a war atrocity. “False is what does not happen.” But truths aren’t that easy to determine in “Describe the Night,” Rajiv Joseph’s ambitious, uneven and hard-to-describe drama, especially as it competes with conspiracy theories, prophecies, metaphors and myths, all of which swirl around this historic fantasia like one of the surreal stews cooked up by the writer who is one of its characters.
Lies, after all, have so much more appeal, intrigue and power. Control of the facts — and by implication history’s narrative — is at the heart of this intriguing but too-often confounding play that takes an epic, historical look at Soviet control, infiltration and strategies.
The work, which premiered in hurricane-ravaged Houston earlier this year, also gets a subtextual boost for this Atlantic Theater Company outing from the political present, with contemporary cries of media manipulation, attacks on journalistic credibility and taunts of “fake news.” A character in the play even bears a cool resemblance to Vladimir Putin.
Multiple, time-jumping narratives take place over a 90-year period in Russia, East Germany and Poland. It begins with a friendship that emerges in an opening scene set in 1920 between real-life Russian writer Isaac Babel (Danny Burstein) and an army captain named Nikolai (Zach Grenier), who in later scenes would become a power in Stalin’s secret police. In scenes set in the late ’30s, Babel’s friendly protector turns into his enemy when the writer has an affair with Nikolai’s wife Yevgenia (Tina Benko), a relationship that gives the play its only tender moments.