The two male characters whose association lies at the heart of Rajiv Joseph’s wonderful play Describe the Night were real. Isaac Babel (Danny Burstein) really was a Russian writer who died in 1940, persecuted by the authorities for his writing.
As he does in this 2 3/4-hour play—exquisitely acted by the cast and directed with a supple grace by Giovanna Sardelli—Isaac really did have an affair with Yevgenia (Tina Benko), the wife of Nikolai Yezhov (Zach Grenier), who really was chief of the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, in the mid- to late 1930s.
But Joseph takes some factual and dramatic liberties too to sketch a tangled story of love, repression, and artistic strength lasting from 1920 to 2010 that also, ambitiously, traces the rise of a president of Russia, who closely resembles Vladimir Putin.
Each of the three acts in Joseph’s play at the Atlantic Theater’s Linda Gross Theater contains four scenes taken from different years in that 90-year span. The play is its own vivid, perfectly paced patchwork of memory, lies, and revelations. Raw confrontation and violence share the same orbit as flashes of magical realism.
We first see Babel’s book of notes and observations that becomes the play’s talisman in 1920 in an opening scene that he shares with Yezhov, set in the Polish countryside.
Both men are in the infancy of their wildly different careers: Babel is a self-possessed journalist who by night—when the men see each other—is the dreamer, wondering how Yezhov would describe the night sky. Burstein is excellent as both dedicated artist and self-aware, deliberate thorn in authoritarianism’s side.
Isaac knows how to needle Nikolai, whose anti-artistic philistinism and innate brutishness Grenier makes immediately apparent in their encounter.
We see another connection 10 years later when Isaac first meets Yevgenia: He begins a flirtatious acting game with her. Benko—who memorably embodied a Melania Trump-like Calpurnia in the Public Theater’s controversial, Trump-themed summer production of Julius Caesar—occupies the stage with a lithe command. She seems eccentric, artistic, and utterly unsuited to her brutish husband.
She is bewitched by Isaac but also loyal to, and a little terrified of, Nikolai. She also has special powers of her own, accurately predicting both men’s deaths.
Sardelli and Joseph, author of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo (a 2010 Pulitzer Prize finalist for Drama), crisply marshal the play’s complex structure, immersing us in its contrasting eras, which flash up as guiding graphics on the back wall.
The earliest modern scene of the play is set in a car rental at Smolensk airport in 2010, near to where a plane, traveling from Poland to Russia, crashed in the Katyn Forest, killing the president of Poland, the first lady, and virtually every top-level member of the government and military.
The party was traveling to Russia for the 70th anniversary of the Katyn Massacre of hundreds of Polish nationals, which Mikhail Gorbachev admitted in 1989 was perpetrated by the-then NKVD and not the Nazis.
In the car rental the attendant, the handsome, nervous Feliks (Stephen Stocking), hands Babel’s book to Mariya (Nadia Bowers), a journalist on the run. He had taken Babel’s book from the hands of a woman who was dying in the wreckage of the plane crash, he says. She seemed to want him to have it.
It says something about the ingenuity of Tim Mackabee’s sets that the Atlantic’s moderately sized stage can be so plausibly transformed from woodland to car rental to basement, to file-stuffed office to homely apartments, to an office-like torture chamber and, finally, a quietly redemptive launderette.
All the time, when they are not the background of a scene, there are the secret police’s files in dark shadow piled high around the stage perimeter, the eternal ghosts of secrets and spying, of the pain of the past and repression, that forms the thread of the main story.
How history is told and who tells it is the play’s recurrent theme, whether it is a journalist or poet or lover or secret police file. We see, in Nikolai’s actions, how that history is made malleable, made false, and criminally rewritten. We also see how the truth survives despite the odds set against it.
In the later year of 1989, Joseph’s Nikolai is not dead (as he was in reality; he died in 1940, like his nemesis Babel), but the keeper of secrets in Dresden as Glasnost courses around him, with the Berlin Wall about to fall. History is about to vaporize him, but not before Vova (Max Gordon Moore) comes to do his worst too.
Vova (who, like Putin, was in Dresden at the time) is a KGB agent, and Moore embodies his coiled physical menace, his ruthlessness, with true menace. His words are like vicious bullets, he looks ready to snap a neck as if it were a twig. He is there at Nikolai's lair, his kingdom of old papers, to destroy. With floppy disc in hand, he embodies a new way of intelligence gathering.
Vova’s mission to find Babel’s prized book, which has somehow gone missing, leads to him find an older Yevgenia and her granddaughter Urzula. It seems an unfair fight, but Yevgenia, waspish, wispy, and icily defiant, serves him a leech soup he will never forget (and which Isaac wrote about in his book, a joke we have already seen from many years before) and which makes for one of the evening’s moments of rare hilarity.
As time flicks forward and back we see, in haunting detail, how the friendship, despite their political and cultural differences, between Isaac and Nikolai has become poisoned by Nikolai’s jealousy and violent political ambition.
We see Nikolai’s envy of Isaac’s talent and idealism. We see the ill-fatedness of the love between Isaac and Yevgenia; Nikolai destroying Isaac’s work in front of him, Urzula trying to escape to the West, to get away from Vova; and we see Vova himself in 2010 become “the president,” the embodiment of Putin, or a president very much in his image.
Inside him is the rage of an authoritarian masking the rage of a frightened, belittled boy, terrified like Nikolai of his masculinity being questioned or ridiculed.
Babel’s book is there again in the final confrontation between Vova and Mariya, whom Bowers gives a steely strength to and whose fate all too shamefully matches those of other journalists in Putin’s Russia. Their confrontation takes place in the derelict though still charged shell of the building where Nikolai finally confronted Isaac.
The play uses much mirroring of past and present to subtle and powerful effect. Joseph doesn’t so much suggest that history is destined to repeat itself but that a certain model of an authoritarian dictatorship has echoed through Russian history.
The tragedy of that is writ large in Joseph’s characters, not simply in those unjustly persecuted but also in the embrace of violent inhumanity of their persecutors.
Whatever Putin’s own primacy in the world today, Vova does not get the final word here. Instead, the final scene of Describe the Night sees a beaten and despondent Feliks alighting on a launderette presided over by Mrs. Petrovna (Bowers again), the ghost of Yevgenia passing them, clutching Isaac’s words close.
Just as at the beginning of the play, there is a night sky outside. Perhaps again it is impossible to accurately describe, but—as it was in 1920 for Isaac and Nikolai in their first moment of nervous amity—it has its own enveloping magnificence and comfort, this time for an old woman and a young man beginning their own tentative friendship.
Describe the Night is at the Atlantic Theater (Linda Gross Theater), 336 West 20th St., New York City, through Dec. 24. Book here.