Descriptions are Lies, But Describe the Nightis Truly Poetic.
As those first words are spoken over the sounds of crickets and the cello playing softly in Rajiv Joseph’s new play at Atlantic Theater, the simple poetic beauty of the moment fills the space with a glorious openness of possibilities. It gives no indication about what is to follow, and as each character in the finely crafted epic play, Describe the Nightenter and weave this rich story together, we are drawn in, bit by bit, never really able to see the grandness of this structurally solid play until the final scene. And then it all come together, shockingly. Maybe a bit too tidy in its human connection component, but the play’s intricate and finely woven plot outweighs the contrivance of the intertwined relationships, leaving us fully enthralled until the elegant ending.
The actors come together solidly, creating such intense moments by enriching their characters with uniqueness and humility. The range of emotions that rattle out from their souls is so human and basic, yet so captivating. Ideas revolve around the telling of lies, the clarity of the truth, and the confessional aspects of both. Sometimes the characters slip into exaggerated postures, especially on the physical level, bending over a bit too far or falling and flailing dramatically, but the connections to one another feel true and powerful. The always awesome Danny Burstein (Broadway’s Fiddler on the Roof) as the emotional trunk of this tree, plays one of the true great Russian writers of his time, Isaac Babel, whose history is as compelling as this play. Burstein positions himself throughout this time-jumping story as the moral but complex grandfather of all that comes after. It’s a beautiful emotionally-centered performance, especially during that first scene with his polar opposite, the Soviet Stalinist, Nikolai Yezhow, played with a perfectly calibrated over-the-top sense of glee by Zach Grenier (Broadway’s 33 Variations). Their comrade engagement is the soil of this story, enriching the growth of this family tree up and outwards. Tina Benko (Shakespeare in the Park’s Julius Caesar) as the wife, mistress, and grandmother, Yevgenia fluctuates broadly from charming young thing to a frail but strong-willed matriarch and protector. It’s a powerfully done transformation, right before our eyes, and doesn’t hint at her power and resolve that will come. From these three, who find themselves intertwined in love and attachment, all else branches off into an intricate canopy of Russian history flowered with love, betrayal, and intrigue. (for the full review, click here)