Theater review by Helen Shaw
The scenes that make up Rajiv Joseph's ambitiously complex Describe the Night dance and skip through time. One moment we're in Smolensk after the Polish President's plane crash in 2010; next, we're in 1989 Germany, waiting for the Berlin Wall to fall. We hopscotch from a Polish wood in 1920, where the writer Isaac Babel (Danny Burstein) begins a journal of his experiences, to Moscow in 1940, where Babel falls afoul of a friend he met in Poland: Nikolai Yezhov (Zach Grenier), now a high-level Soviet official. You may know that the actual Babel didn't survive Stalin, but since so much of the “real” in Joseph’s play swings topsy-turvy into fantasy, you hold out hope. Truth, fairytale and conspiracy theory are all in the soup; the spoon you raise might contain a historical nugget, or it might not.
Tim Mackabee's set contains shelves and shelves of cardboard boxes, a reference to the deep Soviet archive. And you can almost see Joseph scrabbling through those files, holding up a bit of research or period detail to delight over. For instance, Babel really did know Yezhov's wife, Yevgenia (Tina Benko), though her further adventures in East Germany are Joseph's rich comic invention. But did her granddaughter, Urzula (Rebecca Naomi Jones), really know a certain current world figure early in his career? To keep track of all the connections, it would help to have of those homicide boards, with red strings somehow connecting a Russian intelligence officer (Max Gordon Moore) to a 2010 journalist (Nadia Bowers) as well as to the long-dead Babel.
In a nearly three-hour play, it's impressive that Joseph keeps everything spinning almost to the very end. What's missing, though, is a sense that there's a center to the whirlwind. What idea, other than “fiction exists,” is all this historical flotsam whizzing around? Joseph and director Giovanni Sardelli try to wrench us over to an emotional ending, when sound designer–composer Daniel Kluger turns up the beautiful strings. But a puzzle-box play can't suddenly switch into poignancy just because the music tells it to. Still, it’s a pleasure that someone has finally figured out to fully exploit Tina Benko's talents. As the young Yevgenia, she's kittenish and vampy and throbbing with psychic power; as the older version, she puts on fluffy slippers and turns into the drollest possible take on the witch from “Hansel and Gretel.” Who else has this Eleonora Duse-to-Lucille Ball range? “Let me tell you a story,” the ancient Yevgenia creaks at a terrifying Soviet agent she's briefly incapacitated. And as long as she's telling it, it’s riveting.
Atlantic Theater Company (Off Broadway). By Rajiv Joseph. Directed by Giovanna Sardelli. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 45mins. Two intermissions.
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