“True is what happens,” says a confidant Russian Red Army captain to a journalist who is having a difficult time describing things he has seen, be it the night sky or a war atrocity. “False is what does not happen.” But truths aren’t that easy to determine in “Describe the Night,” Rajiv Joseph’s ambitious, uneven and hard-to-describe drama, especially as it competes with conspiracy theories, prophecies, metaphors and myths, all of which swirl around this historic fantasia like one of the surreal stews cooked up by the writer who is one of its characters.
Lies, after all, have so much more appeal, intrigue and power. Control of the facts — and by implication history’s narrative — is at the heart of this intriguing but too-often confounding play that takes an epic, historical look at Soviet control, infiltration and strategies.
The work, which premiered in hurricane-ravaged Houston earlier this year, also gets a subtextual boost for this Atlantic Theater Company outing from the political present, with contemporary cries of media manipulation, attacks on journalistic credibility and taunts of “fake news.” A character in the play even bears a cool resemblance to Vladimir Putin.
Multiple, time-jumping narratives take place over a 90-year period in Russia, East Germany and Poland. It begins with a friendship that emerges in an opening scene set in 1920 between real-life Russian writer Isaac Babel (Danny Burstein) and an army captain named Nikolai (Zach Grenier), who in later scenes would become a power in Stalin’s secret police. In scenes set in the late ’30s, Babel’s friendly protector turns into his enemy when the writer has an affair with Nikolai’s wife Yevgenia (Tina Benko), a relationship that gives the play its only tender moments.
Another storyline takes place in the ’80s, as the Berlin Wall — and much of the Soviet system — is about to fall. KGB agent Vova (Max Gordon Moore) spies on and tries to impede Urzula (Rebecca Naomi Jones), a young woman living with her grandmother who longs to escape from Dresden to the West.
Then in 2010 an employee car rental agency named Feliks (Stephen Stocking) witnesses the mysterious Smolensk plane crash that killed many high-level members of the Polish government, including the president. He helps a journalist Mariya (Nadia Bowers) to escape the area as it’s being shut down by Russian powers trying to contain information about the “accident.”
Like earlier plays by Joseph, including “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” and “Guards at the Taj,” the characters “Describe the Night” are pawns in a swirl of harsh political realities, and the writer gives his historically set storytelling a heightened imaginative lift. But often the changes in style are just too odd to fathom, coincidences are too much of a stretch and references become redundant (yet another truth-versus-reality line?)
Giovanna Sardelli directs with a wide and careless brush, allowing performances to pivot harshly from the almost-human to the bizarrely comic to the coolly removed. The actors do their best to shift playing styles, but often the comic moments — and even some of the dramatic ones — are played so broad as not to be believed at all. Burstein comes closest to a character that is affectingly human, offering truths that you can believe.