|DESCRIBE THE NIGHT|
What is the truth and what is a lie? Does it rely solely on the teller, making the concept subjective, or are their objective facts? Is memory reliable? Is something “true” one day but “false” the next? These questions resound, over and over, throughout Rajiv Joseph’s ambitious, epic, and ultimately memorable drama “Describe the Night,” now premiering at the Atlantic Theatre under the assured direction of his frequent collaborator, Giovanna Sardelli.
Yes, the play may sound like a college philosophy class, and while it’s not quite as long (although it runs almost a full three hours), “Describe the Night” requires the kind of intense focus that many theatergoers no longer possess. And even the most patient audience member will, at times, be exasperated by the repetition of certain ideas or what initially feels like unnecessary dialogue.
Indeed, unlike some of his smaller scale works such as “Guards at the Taj” and “Gruesome Playground Injuries,” Joseph’s work here is positively Stoppardian in its intellectual and geographic scope: the play spans 90 years, three countries, and mixes real-life historical figures (although their histories have been re-written) with invented ones inside its ever-swirling panorama. (The surprisingly simple yet versatile set is by the clever Tim Mackabee.)
All starts simply enough with the chance meeting of two Russians involved in the Russo-Polish war of 1920: an aspiring writer named Isaac Babel (the always excellent Danny Burstein, initially unrecognizable) – whose journal will survive these 90 years – and Nikolai Yezhov (Zach Grenier, who delivers a very strong performance that occasionally falls into excess), a clearly troubled fellow who will eventually rise to great heights (and fall to great depths) decades later under the regime of Joseph Stalin.
Cutting back and forth over time, with no linear narrative, Joseph eventually introduces us to Nikolai’s magnetic wife Yevgenia (the superb Tina Benko, milking both laughs and tears from her role); her supremely unhappy daughter Ursula (a fine but underused Rebecca Naomi Jones), a singer in the 1980s who wants to head west from Communist-occupied Dresden, but lacks the courage; Vova (the extraordinary Max Gordon Moore), an ambitious KGB agent with his own problematic past (and shocking future); Marisa (an effective Nadia Bowers), a Russian reporter who witnesses the 2010 plane crash that killed virtually every member of the Polish government; and Felixs (the touching Stephen Stocking), the scared car rental clerk who becomes Maria’s accomplice in her getaway.
How all these characters are actually interconnected is worthy of Agatha Christie. Sometimes, you will be one step ahead of Joseph, and sometimes, you will be two steps behind. And yes, perhaps you won’t care. But the rewards for those who stick with the work are bountiful. Not only is Joseph’s ultimate solution to this Chinese Puzzle of a play both ingenious and surprising, you will find yourself heading into the night -- and out of the “Night” -- with a rejiggered outlook on the concept of “reality.”
By Brian Scott Lipton
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Tina Benko, Nadia Bowers, Danny Burstein, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Max Gordon Moore, Stephen Stocking
Atlantic Theater Company/Linda Gross Theater
336 West 20th Street
New York, NY 10011