Do you remember when you were born? What were the circumstances of your childhood? Where’s that accent from? Be specific. Nothing but the facts now.
It’s harder than you think. Just ask the Russian truth twisters that populate Describe the Night, the decades-spanning production from the Woolly Mammoth Theater Company. Keeping to the facts, says the playwright Rajiv Joseph, is a permanent struggle with only temporary successes. Failure means, oh, changing history.
To prove the fickleness of facts, Joseph performs his own feat of historical accounting: We start in 1920, Poland, with author and Red Army captain Isaac Babel (Jonathan David Martin). He writes stories that some comrades might call subversive: gangsters, prostitutes, scenes less than sanitary to the Communist censors. He is himself a master of describing, yet he confesses, “I am the worst person in the world to determine what is true.”
Babel’s ability to tell tales, to write fiction, mesmerizes Nikolai (Tim Getman), a soldier who, in cartoonish pantomime of the Soviet ethos, misunderstands the difference between personal reflections in a story about a military killing and the details that will go into a field report about an actual execution he committed: “I don’t care what you write, as long as you write facts! As long as everything is TRUE.” Babel teaches Nikolai how to tell the truth without using facts and report facts without revealing the truth. This is the first of a three-threaded tale.
The Plane Crash
Thread number two: Cut to 2010 in Smolensk. Having just witnessed a plane crash, Mariya (Kate Eastwood Norris) bangs on the door of a car rental agency. Feliks (Justin Weaks) answers with a junkie skittishness. Mariya is a journalist. She came to Poland to report a benign story about the Polish government.
Her subjects, however, were late to the interview. What held them up? They were passengers on the now-smoldering plane. How much does she really know? Is she the only witness of some Russian chicanery, or is she herself a Russian agent?
If the 1920s and the 2010s are the bookends, 1989 is the centerpiece. The final thread, it is the year the Berlin Wall turned to dust. Agent Vova (Danny Gavigan) reports for duty to get his undercover field assignment. He’s gunning for the United States. He harbors what those on the west side of the wall call “aspirations”.
To get his preferred assignment, Vova doctors his credentials with what those on the east side of the wall call “historical alterations”. He gets his mission. But his targets—Urzula (Moriamo Temidayo Akibu) and Yevegnia (Regina Aquino)—reel the KGB bruiser into investigating his own spotty past.
Weaving Tangled Threads
The threads tangle into an involuted ball of misremembered stories, changes of identity, and heady phantasmagoria. It is as if Tennessee Williams had awoken in Moscow with a fever and a missing kidney. The crossed wires, espionage, and newsy intrigue on which Rajiv Joseph built his reputation is a welcome presence on the DC stage. At just under three hours, though, a handful of the play’s eight scenes play for just too long. And, while Joseph shifts easily between a modern mode of contemporary comedy and an almost Brechtian taste for political metaphor, the show’s point is plain from page one.
Indeed, the main criticism one can make is that the points never develop. From scene to scene, the expressionistic lighting, industrial set design and raised question marks usefully distract us. But the points merely pile on top of one another like so many logs thrown on a fire. Coming in from the cold to watch Describe the Night, won’t raise your body temperature. But, it will throw off enough sparks to make you forget that you’re freezing.
Describe the Night runs until June 23 at Woolly Mammoth Theater. It is 2 hours and 45 minutes long. Buy tickets here.
Kyle Dunn is a writer and critic. He works on Capitol Hill.