(l to r) Zach Grenier and Danny Burstein in ‘Describe the Night.’ (Photo: Ahron R. Foster)
By Samuel L. Leiter
Isaac Babel (1894-1940), the great Russian-Jewish author and translator, had the kind of life that seems ready-made for dramatization. Only in recent years have the details of this faithful communist’s life during the Stalinist regime and his torture, forced confession, and execution been made public.
Several years ago, British playwright Bernard Kops, having gained access to his interrogation, attempted to dramatize it in Whatever Happened to Isaac Babel, which thus far has received only a single 2010 performance, at London’s Jewish Museum. For a fully produced play about Babel we must turn to Describe the Night, by Raviv Joseph (Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo), an ambitious but dramatically unpersuasive and unimpressively acted and directed drama, first seen at Houston’s Alley Theatre and now getting its New York premiere at the Atlantic Theater.
It introduces Babel’s (Danny Burstein) relationship with the NKVD commander Nikolai Yezhof (Zach Grenier), whom he met in a Polish forest in 1920, and shows Babel’s death (although not as it actually happened) in 1940. It also reveals what happened in later years to several people closely involved in Babel’s life, with scenes set in 1989, when the Soviet Union (and the Berlin Wall) crumbled, and 2010, when a plane crashed in Smolensk, Poland, killing the Polish president, his wife, and many other officials.
The play’s chronology is deliberately erratic, creating a mosaic that forces us to wonder what connects the many scenes. Thus, when the play opens, we see the first of a string of similar titles, each providing a place, a year, and a tag: “Poland, 1920. Lies,” followed by “Smolensk, 2010. Car Rental,” “Moscow, 1937. Fate,” and so on.
Eventually, the pieces begin to fit and the mystery is resolved, although not to very significant effect. Mostly, it seems a playwright’s trick to stir audience interest on a level beyond the straightforward recounting of an intrinsically fascinating story.
Giovanna Sardelli’s staging, combining realism with surrealism, is on Tim Macabee’s bleak, three-sided, neutral space serving all locales, with large double-doors upstage and overhead shelves filled with official papers. Here, Joseph’s twisting, panoramic, clarity-challenged plot, covering 90 years, mingles fact and fiction in order to weave a web of themes relating to authoritarian regimes, surveillance, lies, truth, adultery, loyalty, freedom, and coercion.
Much of it can’t be taken literally, like the scenes set in 1989 when the aged Nikolai, who was himself executed in 1940 after confessing under torture, is seen as the head of the KGB’s Bureau 42. The scenes range from dramatically compelling—Nikolai’s burning of Isaac’s writings, for example—to the ridiculous—when a Putinesque spy named Vovo (Max Gordon Moore) drinks leech soup and goes into wrenching conniptions.
Describe the Night shows the seduction by Babel (whose own wife lives in Paris) of Nikolai’s beautiful wife, Yevgenia (Tina Benko); Babel’s imprisonment, interrogation, and death; the postwar lives in Dresden, East Germany, of the aged Yevgenia (who actually died in 1938) and her granddaughter, Urzula, a Polish nightclub singer (played by African-American actress Rebecca Naomi Jones); the assignment in 1989 of Vovo by the decrepit Nikolai to surveil Urzula as a possible flight risk to the West; and the relationship of all this to the Smolensk air crash, with regard to a car rental clerk, Feliks (Stephen Stocking) who helps a reporter, Mariya (Nadia Bowers), escape the area.
The actors, trapped in the play’s artificially European atmosphere, cannot make any of this humanly affecting. The worst offender is Grenier, who attempts to sound like a gruff, authoritarian Russian by continually blasting his lines as if he were acting without a mic in Madison Square Garden.
Danny Burstein plays with restraint against this bombast but is unable to translate the dross of his lines into the gold of theatrical reality. Only Tina Benko, as the young, charmingly theatrical Yevgenia, scores, but when she shifts to being a geriatric Yevgenia the result is a cartoonish crone.
Sources say Describe the Night is three hours long but it actually runs only two hours and 40 minutes. Perhaps the sources are reflecting how long the play feels rather than how long it is. Truth comes in many guises.
Describe the Night
Atlantic Theater Company/Linda Gross Theater
336 W. 20th St., NYC
Through December 24
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. A voting member of the Drama Desk, he has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).