Home / Music & Arts / 'Describe the Night' review: Rajiv Joseph traces history and lies

'Describe the Night' review: Rajiv Joseph traces history and lies

Except for a bizarre scene involving soup laced with blood-engorged leeches, Rajiv Joseph’s “Describe the Night” is an ambitious but anemic drama.

Set in Russia, East Germany and Poland, the play at the Atlantic Theater spans nine decades streaked with political intrigue and darkness. It combines historical figures and actual events with fictional characters and occurrences.

The first scene — marked by the legend “Lies” — unfolds in 1920. Russian writer Isaac Babel (Danny Burstein) meets Soviet Secret Police chief Nikolai Yezhov (Zach Grenier), who will change — and eventually end — the author’s life.

The play leaps to 2010. Felicks (Stephen Stocking), a car rental agent, and Mariya (Nadia Bowers), a journalist, are terrified witnesses to the plane crash that killed most of the Polish government officials.

In just two scenes, Joseph, who wrote the Pulitzer finalist “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” hooks us. What do these four people have to do with each other?

The curiosity amplifies with the arrival of Yezhov’s wife Yevgenia (Tina Benko), who’ll have a disastrous affair with Babel; Vova (Max Gordon Moore), a hard-driven KGB agent; Urzula (Rebecca Naomi Jones), a singer who wants to escape East Germany in 1989, and Mariya’s landlady (Bowers).

Puzzle pieces eventually all snap together as the dramatic mash-up explores the weight of history, the slipperiness of truth (the word lies is uttered nearly two dozen times) and the power of connections.

Performances run the gamut from convincing to cartoonish under the direction of Giovanna Sardelli. When all is said and done, the nearly three-hour play lacks a cumulative punch.

Describe the “Night” — intriguing, long and low-impact.

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