The Citiblog

REVIEW: CHRISTINE LAHTI RULES RUSSIAN TROLL FARM
February 8, 2024, 10:26.41 pm ET


Photo: Carol Rosegg

By Brian Scott Lipton

It’s possible to still “second act” a big Broadway musical, but it would take a great deal more ingenuity to slip into the middle of a 100-minute one-act Off-Broadway play. Still, if you have the know-how (and chutzpah) to do so, it’s a potentially worthy strategy for “Russian Troll Farm,” getting its New York City premiere at the Vineyard Theatre under Darko Tresnjak’s savvy direction.

If you can figure this plan out, you can simply sit and marvel at the shattering 10-minute monologue written by Sarah Gancher and delivered with heartbreaking pathos by the utterly brilliant Christine Lahti. Short as it is, the speech both lets us in on the entire, unsettling personal history of this enigmatic, 71-year-old woman, Ljuba, as well as provides us with a brilliant summation of the history of the USSR/Russia from Stalin through Putin. Both in writing and execution, it practically defines the concept of great theater.

Admittedly, if you were to miss the play surrounding this speech, you would not get its full effect, nor would you witness Gancher’s gift for hilarious one-liners, pointed barbs at the stupidity of some Americans, and her sharp take on office politics. (The show is aptly subtitled “A Workplace Comedy.”) Conversely, there’s a good chance you might also feel you’ve been “spared” seeing a play that frequently feels muddled and overly ambitious, without a clear point-of-view or singular protagonist.

Until that monologue, we know very little about Ljuba: a stressed-out, short-tempered bureaucrat at the very real Internet Research Agency in Saint Petersburg, Russia in 2016. Their sole goal appears to be creating chaos in America – especially among Democrats and swing voters – in an attempt to hand the U.S. presidency to Donald Trump. (I doubt Gancher, who wrote the play some years ago, expected it to be a true cautionary tale for 2024.)

To accomplish this, Ljuba’s team of human “bots” – the aspiring screenwriter Nikolai (an earnest Hadi Tabbal), the disillusioned ex-journalist Masha (a low-key Renata Friedman), the almost robotic, desperately lonely Egor (a very effective Haskell King), and the blowhard, sloppily dressed Steve (the hilarious John Lavelle, in a truly go-for-broke performance) -- write both simple tweets and elaborate threads complete with outrageous falsehoods, fake news sources, and incendiary statements. As for Ljuba, she doesn’t tweet herself – as one character cracks, she needs to call IT whenever she needs to open at attachment – but simply oversees these workers and barks out orders from her superiors.

Like all of our characters, we may get a thrill (as much as we hate it) seeing how effective their work can be, but Gancher is smart enough to know an entire play consisting of such sequences (many of which contain actual tweets created by the agency) would soon move from hysterical to mind-numbing.

Moreover, Gancher is less interested in exploring national politics than office politics, perhaps because it’s a more relatable subject to audiences of all ages and persuasions. Still, even if we’ve lived through similar circumstances as these men and women who are forced to share simple working quarters (nicely designed here by Alexnder Dodge), we really don’t care much who gets demoted or fired (or even executed) or who becomes top dog. Familiarity, here, doesn’t exactly breed contempt, but it does result in a bit of ennui.

The possible exception is the deceptively smart Steve, who may or may not believe anything he says about his admiration for Nazis, his dislike for homosexuals and blacks or his devotion to Soviet traditionalism. Still, in Lavelle’s expert hands (and oversized belly and derriere, both visible), the character is both slightly chilling, and spectacularly entertaining, much like a lot of “Russian Troll Farm” itself.

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