Dark and murky. Often quite lovely and fascinating, but ultimately far longer and more contrived than it needs to be.
That’s me describing Describe the Night, the decades-spanning, border-jumping drama about a diary that once belonged to real-life Russian author and journalist Isaac Babel (Jonathan David Martin), going on now until June 23 at Woolly Mammoth. In 1940, the journal is smuggled out of Moscow, barely escaping a Stalinist purge, by the disgraced wife (Regina Aquino) of a Kremlin bigwig. In 1989, while in the possession of a young woman who dreams of being a singer (Moriamo Temidayo Akibu), it witnesses the fall of the Berlin Wall. And, in 2010, it survives the Polish Air Force plane crash that killed President Lech Kaczynski and 95 other people.
But, as written by Rajiv Joseph and directed by John Vreeke, Describe the Night isn’t so much the diary, or even the impact it has on people’s lives. It’s about truth and fate and choice. Multiple characters have their fortunes told — always with 100% accuracy — and more than one endures a grim interrogation scene in what appears to be a modified dentist’s chair. This strange and frightful story can wear a little thin, but it offers up great space for some hungry performers (Tim Getman deserves more showpieces like this) and itch designers (Roc Lee’s sound in particular deserves a shout-out).
This is at least the third time this year that a major D.C.-area theatre has looked to Russian-set stories for lessons for today, the era of Moscow-sponsored fake news. Following Arena’s Kleptocracy and Constellation’s Master and Margarita, District theatregoers should apparently stock up on vodka. All three productions aimed for high intellectualism, all three occasionally hit their mark.
The message of this play seems to be that truth — or, at least, some version of it — will always survive the forces that seek to squelch it. But that message gets muddled by a script so willing to play fast and loose with historical fact: transferring blame and guilt all around, changing who died when, and giving Vladimir Putin a long-lost, one-eyed sister just so the coincidences pile on well past the point of collapse. Also: The diary ends up in the bowels of the KGB! The hell kinda optimistic ending is that…?
This is a smart, well-meaning show, though perhaps too obsessed with coincidence and destiny to forge its own fate.