Watching the deliberate, origami-like unfolding of Rajiv Joseph’s dense and fascinating new play Describe the Night, directed by Giovanna Sardelli at Atlantic Theater Company, I found myself thinking of a tiger. Not the tiger you might expect, meaning the one at the center of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, which earned Joseph wide acclaim and a finalist nod for the 2010 Pulitzer. No — I was thinking of the tiger in The Life of Pi, Yann Martel’s novel about a young Indian boy who survives for 227 days on a raft after a shipwreck, with that great striped beast as his only companion … or does he? Late in the novel, Pi offers another version of his story — one that involves no tiger, and is devastating, chaotic, and ugly. Which version is true? Pi’s answer: “Which story do you prefer? Which is the better story?”
Describe the Night is a play about stories, beginning in historical fact and spinning outward like a fractal pattern, with the truth as its seed but something grander than plain truth in its proliferation. The filmmaker Werner Herzog might call it “ecstatic truth.” Martel might simply call it the better story. It’s also a play about Russia. Though — with its fixation on the shifting, fog-enshrouded borders between fact and fabrication, corporal and mystical, personal and state-sanctioned “truth” — could it really be about anywhere else? Joseph has an ear for the heartbeat of the moment. American heads are turning toward Russia again, perhaps more and more seriously than ever before. Following on the heels of Belarus Free Theatre’s incendiary Burning Doors, Describe the Night feels like a vital attempt to hold a mirror up to the former Soviet Union. And since Joseph is an American playwright, it’s also a mirror in which we might see ourselves.
The play begins in a field. A writer sits alone in the dark, perched on a log, an open journal balanced on his knee. A piece of projected text gives us both a fact — “Poland, 1920” — and also something that’s not quite a fact, but rather a lens through which to view the coming scene. This first of these: “Lies.” (Describe the Night is a long play: almost three hours with two intermissions. But it can’t and needn’t be otherwise — Joseph’s construction is mathematical, methodical. Each act has four scenes, each scene presented distinctly, like chapters in a book, each labeled with the fact of its time and location and a name that turns it into a story.)
The writer speaks the play’s title aloud to himself: “Describe the night.” It’s a direction, a command of sorts. He puts pen to paper and attempts it. He’s unsatisfied with the result. He tries something else (“Describe the air”), and then something else (“the field”). Still unsatisfied. The process is slow, internal, not dreadfully interesting. It’s a gutsy beginning for a play, with its blatant lack of drama. Sardelli doesn’t rush the tempo. She and Joseph are teaching us this story’s rhythm. Here, it’s still full of breath, weight, and silence. But there’s a feeling of inevitability to Describe the Night: Something is being set in motion in this first scene, like dropping a coin into one of those centrifugal contraptions that sit in the lobbies of children’s museums. The path it traces will be slow and broad until gradually, then suddenly, it’s caught in a blurry, unstoppable spin, ready to drop and disappear.
The coin in this case is that journal on the writer’s lap. The twelves scenes of Describe the Night occur in three distinct time periods (2010, 1989, and a swath of years between 1920 and 1940), and in three different countries (Russia, Poland, and Germany). In almost every scene, that journal reappears. Its author is Isaac Babel, a real-life Soviet writer who was born in the Ukraine in 1894 and who traveled with the Red Army as a wire reporter in the 1920s. That experience gave rise to one of his most famous works, Red Cavalry, and also creates the basis for Joseph’s first scene. The young man in an army uniform, sitting on a log and fretting over descriptions, is Babel. Describe the Night will in part be his story, and it will be the widening, fractaling story of the people touched by that journal as the century relentlessly unfolds.
As Babel, Danny Burstein gives a warm, restrained, and finally moving performance. He shifts gracefully from the diffident, aspiring 24-year-old of the first scene to the suave, successful, borderline-reckless creative sophisticate seen in Moscow in the 1940s. In that dark field in Poland, he meets a fellow soldier — the brusque, brutish Nikolai — and he maintains a sort of friendship with him over 20 years. It’s a perverse, disorienting camaraderie: Nikolai is Nikolai Yezhov, the man who would go on to become the chief of Stalin’s secret police, the NKVD, overseeing the horrific purges of the late 1930s. The growling Zach Grenier makes Nikolai’s bullish, violent streak clear enough, but he’s most interesting when his cracks start to show — like a sullen child who, in the midst of a temper tantrum, is shown something distracting and beautiful and can’t resist turning to look. “Do the one with the water!” he insists to his wife later, urging her to do a fortune-telling parlor trick for which a man like himself should have nothing but repugnance and distrust. “The water and the blindfolds! That’s the one that works!”
What’s true to history (shockingly so) is that Isaac Babel, the Jewish intellectual from Odessa, had an affair with Yezhov’s wife Yevgenia. When Yezhov found out, he placed Babel under surveillance, leading to the writer’s eventual arrest and, in January 1940, execution. What’s true to Rajiv Joseph’s story is that perhaps these men met while they were still almost boys, fighting in a foreign country, frightened in a field at night. Perhaps something about the writer appealed to the soldier. “I can’t believe how good at lying you are!” Nikolai marvels at Isaac as the latter spins stories to pass the time. For Nikolai, stories and lies are the same thing: “True is what happens,” he growls. “False is what does not happen.” Perhaps Nikolai didn’t love his wife — the sparkling, spiritually inclined Yevgenia, with her penchant for fortune-telling and theatrics. Perhaps he loved his friend more. Killed him, eventually, yes, but loved him too.
Or perhaps not, but it’s a good story. And given the intelligent, playful performances of Describe the Night’s ensemble, you want to believe it and the many others Joseph weaves. Tina Benko is especially striking as Yevgenia. She inflects the scenes with Babel and her husband in 1940s Moscow — full of playacting, hiding, and dancing around secrets — with passing shadows that belie her character’s bright, energetic sparkle. And she’s even more mesmerizing when we remeet her as an almost-90-year-old woman living in Dresden in 1989 (an age and a place that the real Yevgenia never reached). Benko’s old Yevgenia is sly, bent but unbreakable, the flutter of her youth replaced with a wicked sense of humor and latent ferocity that expresses itself most fully in her love for her granddaughter, Urzula.
Urzula is Isaac’s grandchild, not Nikolai’s, and in 1989 the talisman of a journal is in her hands. Rebecca Naomi Jones gives a grounded, sharp-eyed performance as a young woman determined to escape the Eastern Bloc no matter what hideous trials she might face along the way. She’s like the heroine of a Russian fairytale, picking her way through the forest, learning as she goes how to be “clever and brave,” absorbing the wisdom of her ancestors — through Yevgenia, through the journal — and trading in innocence for enough cold cunning to defeat the trolls.
As the chief troll in Urzula’s forest — Vova, a KGB agent sent to spy on her and prevent her escape to West Germany — Max Gordon Moore gives an absolutely chilling performance. Vova’s identity is at first a mystery (we watch him change the “facts” about himself that are kept in one of the thousands of files at the KGB bureau in Moscow), and then the play’s biggest, ballsiest twist. (Realistic? No. A good story? Oh, yes.) Suffice to say, Vova becomes someone very, very powerful indeed, and Gordon Moore’s embodiment of a man who can do anything and yet fears everything — a lumbering troll still suffering from being tricked by a little girl in the forest — is a terrifying thing to behold.
There are more players in Joseph’s sprawling saga: a Russian reporter and a Polish car-rental clerk who are caught up in the devastating 2010 Smolensk plane crash; a mysterious Moscow landlady with an eye patch and a past. Babel’s journal touches them all, a book of descriptions — “lies,” says Vova; “thoughts,” says Isaac — winding its way down the centrifuge of time, through 100 years in a country that has called its official newspaper Pravda (“Truth”) and has covered up massacres and erased people from photographs. The genius of Describe the Night is its recognition of the intellectual overlap between Russia’s creators and its tyrants: Both understand the power of story. “Behold, young Vladimir,” an ancient, acidic Nikolai, locked away in the KGB records bureau in 1989, says to Vova. “The black magic marker. The most useful tool in all of communism. There is nothing that cannot be eventually crossed out and changed. This is what we are here to do.” Wielded by Nikolai, Vova, and the world’s fearful, powerful men, it’s a terrifying tool indeed. But they are not the only ones holding the pens — so are the likes of Isaac Babel and Rajiv Joseph. Whose are the better stories?
Describe the Night is at the Atlantic Theater Company through December 24.