“Describe the night,” Isaac Babel tells himself while writing in his diary. The 20th-century Russian writer, now a character in Rajiv Joseph’s thrilling new play, Describe the Night, is a war correspondent, sitting on a log, writing that it was “a sullen patchwork of stars.” Then he is joined by Nikolai, another character plucked from Russian history, soon to become the head of Stalin’s KGB. Their conversational subject, like the subject of the play, is truth and lying. Nikolai describes the starry night as a “chandelier in Moscow.”
The war is suddenly erased: “And we are like men having tea. And the crickets are some violins, and the horses breathing over there, are the quiet, soft murmuring of pretty women in the tea house. [Beat.] Maybe one of them is about to sing.”
And so, like Nikolai, we have seen how fiction – both literary and political – is created. After Nikolai’s murder of an old man earlier that day, which Isaac witnessed, he invents an alternate scenario and then insists that saying makes it so. The contemporary relevance is chilling.
Describe the show, I tell myself, just describe the show. OK:
Three acts, three hours, 12 scenes.
A cast of seven exceptional actors, playing multiple roles under the supple direction of Giovanna Sardelli. Zach Grenier is wonderfully terrifying as Nikolai, and Danny Burstein radiates sweetness and intelligence as Babel.
Also very fine are Tina Benko, Nadia Bowers, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Max Gordon Moore, and Stephen Stocking.
Time frame: 1920-2010.
Setting: Ranges from a forest to a kitchen to a prison to an insane asylum, to the site of an air crash that killed the entire Polish government, to an antiquated underground records office in Moscow. Russia to Poland to Switzerland and back again.
Effect: Gorgeously theatrical, profound, and engrossing. And funny, if you like mordant jokes about dead ducks and leech soup.
It is a terrific challenge to keep track of the relationships and linked identities, providing many “Oh, wait. Oh, I see!” moments. The diary we saw in scene 1 migrates through the century and the play as the actors change characters, and as the characters move from generation to generation, from unborn baby to old woman. Making matters of fact even more complicated is that in the play, Nikolai’s wife is named Yevgenia, who falls in love with Babel; in real life, Yevgenia was the name of Babel’s wife. Babel was murdered in 1940.
Describe the Night is a provocation to thought, both philosophical and political, as we watch a Soviet report being redacted: “The Black Magic Marker: The most useful tool in all of communism. There is nothing that cannot be eventually crossed out, and changed.”
Describe the Night. Through Dec. 24 at the Atlantic Theatre Company, 336 W. 20th Street, New York. Tickets: $25-65. Information: atlantictheater.org.