Good Theater sometimes merely entertains, but at its best, it challenges.
And so it is with “Describe the Night,” a play by Rajiv Joseph that spans nine decades of Russian efforts to misinform, manipulate facts, and spread conspiracy theories. Not only a window into Russia, but a window into our own society here, in the United States.
At least that’s what Tony Estrella, who directs the play at the Gamm (running through Oct. 9) and the playwright believe. Estrella, writing in the play’s program, says Joseph, “wants this play to land with American audiences very directly. Russian history is the framework for a universal and relevant story about the nature of truth, fact versus fiction, information, misinformation, and conspiracy theory – things we as Americans are just as advanced at as anybody.”
The play is far from perfect, sometimes difficult to follow as it winds through these nine decades of Russian history, much of it through the life and death of Isaac Babel, best known as the author of Red Cavalry and Odessa Stories and acclaimed as the greatest prose writer of Russian Jewry. He was imprisoned and executed by firing squad during what was called “The Great Purge,” when the Secret Police lodged false charges against hundreds of Russians who were perceived as political enemies of Joseph Stalin.
It’s Babel’s diary that emerges at various points in the play, and survives, while much of his other works disappear.
You would think that to tell a story spanning 90 years, you would need hours. When it opened in Houston five years ago and in New York a year later, it was called “ambitious,” but also uneven and convoluted, attempting to span nine decades of Russian history in a matter of a couple of hours.
It felt as if the play went on too long, coming up for air on a few occasions as it worked its way to its conclusion.
It seems Joseph was reaching to write that great epic production, but missed, sometimes becoming repetitive, confusing, and twisting history in a way that was often improbable.
The Gamm has often tried to present cutting-edge theater – and successfully – challenging audiences. “Describe the Night” certainly does that.
It won an Obie Award in 2018, awards that honor off-Broadway productions, but it was not without its detractors. A New York Times critic called it a “work of major ambition” that “falls short.”
The play begins in 1920 with a friendship between Babel and an army captain, Nikolai. Nikolai would become a force in Stalin’s secret police, and Babel’s enemy when Babel has an affair with Nikolai’s wife (true). The play moves through the Russian-Polish War, the Great Purge, the destruction of the Berlin wall in 1989, and the Smolensk Air Disaster in 2010, when many Polish leaders were killed in a plane crash.
The play also traces the rise of Vladimir Putin, who surfaces at varying, and often improbable moments.
Characters come and go, but the thread is the same, railing against disinformation. Performances are more than adequate and the set true to the original production, dominated by a wall of files.
There is humor, or there’s supposed to be humor, nearly all of it lost on the audience. A few chuckles here and there.
Now, as a parting note, let me mention the Gamm’s next production – “Sweat.” It won a Pulitzer Prize for the amazing writer, Lynn Nottage, and on Broadway was nominated for best play with other nominations for best-supporting actress. I saw this on Broadway and count it among the best theater I have ever seen. “Sweat” plays at the Gamm from Nov. 3-27.