Another real-life figure, Russian writer Isaac Babel — executed by authorities in 1940 — is a key character, dazzling the intimidating Soviet officer Nikolai Yezhov (also real) as he effortlessly spins up little fictions on the spot. That’s the play’s beginning, in 1920, and it bends forward to the 2010 plane crash in Smolensk that killed 96 people, including Poland’s president.
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At Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, John Vreeke’s fervently acted production gives Joseph’s drama a suitably paranoid, suspenseful air, even if the ambitious script is sometimes overloaded. Misha Kachman’s set design traps the characters on a gash of a stage bisecting the audience. One bank of spectators eyes the other, with the actors playing out power struggles in the middle. For good measure, Dmitri Shostakovich’s compositions sometimes blare in, adding scale and tension.
Yet “Describe the Night” is largely a literary drama, waltzing with malevolent political themes. Babel is its soul, and Jonathan David Martin gives a bookish, slightly anxious performance as the writer whose exercises in make-believe and subversion get perfected by thugs pursuing power. The title comes from Babel’s journal exercise, and as he explains it to the Soviet officer Yezhov — played as a literal-minded brute by Tim Getman — Joseph firmly establishes his refrain of truth and fiction.
Where he takes it can sometimes tax your patience. Toggling forward to 2010, a rental car agent named Feliks bonds with the on-the-run journalist Mariya as the downed Smolensk plane smolders outside. Justin Weaks and Kate Eastwood Norris play the long, sometimes funny scene in full emergency mode, and then their characters vanish from the tale for almost two hours.
Meanwhile, back in the 20th century, Babel and Yezhov become unlikely friends; drawing from the record, Joseph depicts an affair between Babel and Yezhov’s wife, Yevgenia. Departing from history, presumably, but leaning into metaphor and allegory, Yevgenia can forecast the future. (It’s almost always war.) Regina Aquino plays Yevgenia with a whiff of entrapment that escalates into a sharp-edged bitterness; though her mystical rituals involve blindfolds, Yevgenia clearly sees the tragic patterns.
Yevgenia’s granddaughter Urzula (Moriamo Temidayo Akibu) intersects with Vova (Danny Gavigan); it’s complicated, and Babel’s long-lost journal doesn’t effectively bridge the plot’s decades and relationships. As the play cycles through its nearly three hours, you can see why it has divided critics. For all its intriguing parts, the story never fully establishes an authoritative narrative stride.
On the other hand, you can understand why it won last year’s Obie Award as best new American play. The times hardly seem wrong for a fretful epic about truth and lies, the fictions governments learn to spin, and the truths that powerful figures rewrite or ignore. For the record — a phrase that seems totally destabilized by the play — Joseph began the script before the last U.S. presidential campaign, yet watching Vova and a magically undead Yezhov secretly blacking out portions of public documents may fleetingly put you in mind of the redactions in the Mueller report. It’s possible to lean into this dark, warped phantasmagoria and think, yes, this is where we are.
Vreeke, who directed Joseph’s similarly tyrant-obsessed “Guards at the Taj” at Woolly in 2016, navigates with a sure hand. The atmosphere is imaginatively sinister: Ivania Stack’s costumes supply period details and whimsical departures from reality, and Colin K. Bills’s lights help reveal the surprises in Kachman’s set. The acting — so full of storytelling, even in its grim interrogations — deftly sounds the available notes of black comedy, especially when Gavigan’s Vova samples Yevgenia’s soup of blood-engorged leeches. At its best, that’s the sort of vivid, perverse political imagery that “Describe the Night” feasts on.
Describe the Night, by Rajiv Joseph. Directed by John Vreeke. Sound design, Roc Lee. About 2 hours 45 minutes. Through June 23 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St. NW. $46-$89. 202-393-3939. wollymammoth.net.
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