Whether Real or Fiction, the Soviet Leaders Were, and Are, Brutal

Culture Watch
tags: theater review, Describe the Night

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.



    A sprawling saga about Russian history, Describe the Night, opened yesterday in New York with a tricky, innovative back and forth plot, oversized characters, deep emotions and an impact like a punch in the face. The play, nearly three hours long, is a gargantuan historic tale, the Doctor Zhivago of the stage, and it roars.

   The drama, by Rajiv Joseph, at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater on W. 20th Street, tells the long, involved story of Russian writer Isaac Babel and his family. Throughout it, Babel risks his life by publishing his stories, said to be subversive by the Stalin government. He never understands the danger he faces until the end of the play. He is unbelievably naïve. The writer could not only travel in and out of Russia all of his life, but had a wife who lived in Paris where he could go for shelter. He did not do that very often, though. He stubbornly stayed in Russia to promote his work in the era when Stalin was coalescing his power. Big mistake.

    We meet Isaac on a cold night in 1920, when he is a reporter covering the contentious Russian Civil War. He is befriended by Nikolai Yezhov, a rough, tough army officer who has just murdered an old man. Nikolai, a real character, loves the government and does not like his wife back home. He argues with Babel over what is truth and not the truth. Babel insists that the Soviets make up stories and insist the story is the truth, when it is not. Nikolai sneers at him, dismisses his claim and proceeds, for the rest of his life, to make up stories for the government, insisting they represent the truth. A main theme of the drama is the historic fictionalization of history by the Soviets, a neat trick by which they can execute anybody who does not believe their falsehoods.

     Babel is friendly with Nikolai for several decades. He meets (and loves) Nikolai’s wife Yevgenia (not certain), travels in and out of insane asylums, hides his work and is the central “true” character in the tale. As he rises in literary and cultural circles, Yezhov rises in the political world and by the end of the 1930s, a trusted friend of Stalin, he becomes the head of the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, and carried out murderous purges that took the lives of thousands.

    The three-hour play is vast. The women who Babel loved, and Nikolai loved, and hated, come in and out of the play, in both tragic and heroic circumstances. Joseph’s work is all over the place and even brings in the tragic plane crash in Smolensk, Poland, in 2010, said to be sabotage, that killed 96 members of the Polish government, including the President, and military leaders. There, at the fiery crash site, we meet a Soviet journalist who is stuck writing puff pieces for a newspaper and finds herself in the middle of turmoil and danger merely over her appearance in the forest where the plane went down.

    Again and again, in scene after scene, Joseph pounds home the duplicity of Soviet history and politics, even bringing in a figure that is obviously Vladimir Putin. The playwright, and just about everybody in the play, yells at the audience not to trust the Soviets.

   The towering drama is very effective, but it has three problems. First, if you do not know a little bit about Russian history, you are going to be confused. You must know something about Stalin and his political purges in the late 1930s (they ensnare Babel), the Bolshevik Revolution, the squabbles between Russia and Poland and the alleged contemporary “murders” of journalists in Poland and Russia. If you do not, you’ll be adrift during some scenes. The theater should have provided a page or so of historic information connected to the play in its programs, a needed primer in Russian history.

    Second, the play is confusing. The story jumps from 1920 to 2010 and back again. There are scenes in the modern era and then, a second later, back to 1938. It is also hard to understand who is who and who is supposed to be who. I had a hard time keeping track of the identities of the women, young and old, in the story.

   Three, there are a lot of characters and it is difficult to attach yourself to any one particular player.

   The script is engrossing, but the real power of the play comes from the small ensemble of highly skilled actors who give it great depth and force. There are some scenes that are outright scary and some that are tearjerkers. The scene at the plane crash site is one of the most electrifying I have ever seen. The story of Nikolai’s wife, over eighty some years, is a testament to her courage and hope in a world where there is little left. The granddaughter of Babel, trapped in Germany in 1989 and plotting to escape to the west, is the heroine of a masterfully written and very funny scene. These scenes, strung together, even though awkwardly, tell a wonderful tale of fright and fear in the Soviet Union, the kind of story Babel himself might have liked to tell now, too.

    If you do not know much about Russian history, you will learn a lot in this drama. From the Russian civil war to the reign of Stalin to contemporary Russian politics, Describe the Night is full of Soviet history. It is a good tale of both the government and the people (and the secret police, too). It has its problems but, overall, is a sturdy and engaging story.

Director Giovanna Sardelli des a fine job working with a superb cast. They are led by Danny Burstein as the always tentative Isaac, Zach Grenier as hardnosed police chief Nikolai, Tina Benko, who is magnificent as Nikolai’s wife Yevgenia over 80 years of a tragic life. Also in the cast are Stephen Stocking, Nadia Bower, Max Gordon Moore and Rebecca Naomi Jones.

PRODUCTION: The play is produced by the Atlantic Theater Company. Scenic Design: Tim Mackabee, Costumes: Amy Clark, Lighting: Lap Chi Chu, Sound: Daniel Kluger. The play is directed by Giovanna Sardelli. It runs through December 24.

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