Review: Real Russians and Fake News in ‘Describe the Night’

Review: Real Russians and Fake News in ‘Describe the Night’


Still, it’s worth considering what the playwright, the author of “Gruesome Playground Injuries” and a Pulitzer Prize finalist for “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” is up to in a play that tries to swallow recent Russian history whole. Covering a period from 1920, when Babel, working for a wire service, accompanied Russian troops on the invasion of Poland, through the triumph of the Putin thugocracy in 2010 — with stops along the way for Stalin’s purges of the late 1930s and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 — it is a work of major ambition, however far it falls short.

One of its ambitions is to dramatize Babel’s life and put it in the context of a century’s assault on dissident, or merely truth-telling, writers. Babel (Danny Burstein) was both, dangerous to the state not only in his war journalism but also in his fiction, which some critics rank with Chekhov’s. Accused of being a Trotskyite and a French spy, he was executed at age 45 after a 20-minute show trial. Many of his works appear to have been destroyed at the same time.

In telling this tale, Mr. Joseph posits counterfactually that Babel’s judge and executioner was his friend Yezhov (Zach Grenier), whom he met, in another fictional touch, near a battlefield on those Polish excursions. The two men’s relationship over the years — including Babel’s affair with Yezhov’s wife, which is true — forms the twisty spine for about half of the play.

That would have been more than enough to handle, but Mr. Joseph apparently wanted to project this conflict of archetypes beyond Babel’s 1940 death to consider the ways that truth and fiction have leeched off each other ever since.

Photo

Stephen Stocking, as a car-rental agent, and Nadia Bowers, as a Russian reporter, come into possession of Isaac Babel’s journal in “Describe the Night.”

Credit
Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

This involves some timeline shenanigans as Yezhov (who actually died just a few days after Babel did) lives on as a kind of ghost in the K.G.B. machine, eventually becoming Mr. Putin’s mentor. His wife, Yevgenia, also lives on in the play well past her actual death (by suicide in a mental hospital) so that she may have a child by Babel and thus the grandchild who dines on her qureshi.

Got it? Probably not — and yet I’ve barely scratched the surface of this play’s impossibly convoluted plot, which also involves the 2010 crash over Smolensk, Russia, of an airplane that was carrying much of the Polish government. (Conspiracy-minded Poles believe that this was a Putin plot.) This strand of the story introduces a modern-day Russian reporter (Nadia Bowers) and a car-rental agent (Stephen Stocking) who come into possession of the play’s central symbol: a journal Babel kept back in 1920.

There are many other symbols purply dotting the story: ducks, a cello, laundry, that soup. Mr. Joseph’s juggling of them is too heavy-handed to produce any thrills, but eventually you sense that what he’s after is the kind of imagistic force-field that keeps some large scale works, like “Angels in America,” aloft.

“Describe the Night” (the phrase comes from an entry in the Babel journal) wants so much to be that kind of play that it could even bear the Kushner-esque subtitle “A Sour Fantasia on Russian Themes.” It also aims for the trenchant political wit of Tom Stoppard in his “Rock ‘n’ Roll” mode, and Gogol’s blithe way with bureaucratic satire.

But Mr. Joseph does not have the control over tone that is the hallmark of those models: His comedy wilts rather than blossoms in proximity to his tragedy, and his tragedy droops into bathos. The production, directed by Giovanna Sardelli, is no help. Except for the two tightest and most contemporary scenes, both involving Ms. Bowers as the reporter, the pace is leaden. Likewise, Tim Mackabee’s set design, dominated by files representing governmental “truth,” emphasizes rather than counteracts the remoteness of the material.

So do most of the performances, by actors who are appealing under other circumstances but exhausting in these. The root problem is that the characters are mere conveniences, bent like pipe cleaners into the shapes required by the overbearing plot. You spend a lot of time wondering if they are real — to history, that is — but none wondering if they are true. All too evidently, and disastrously, they are not.

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