What is true? What is a lie? As one character explains at the beginning of DESCRIBE THE NIGHT, it’s very simple. The truth is what is true and a lie is what is not. But (as the modern world teaches us) truths are not always absolute. Is an omission therefore a lie? This is one of the many themes interwoven into this brilliant world premiere play by Rajiv Joseph.
DESCRIBE THE NIGHT spans 90 years and three countries: Poland, Russia and East Germany. When we first meet Isaac (Alley Resident Company member Jeffrey Bean) and Nikolai (Alley Resident Company member Todd Waite), they are discussing the former’s personal diary and whether or not he is writing truths or lies. Nikolai, being an army officer, is very concerned with how things are portrayed. Isaac (who turns out to be real-life playwright Isaac Babel) is more concerned with stories, not necessarily documenting the truth. This clash between the two men will become an on-going debate across time with both history and other factors influencing their positions.
We are then transported to 2010 Smolensk, where a plane carrying a large number of Polish government officials has just crashed. If this sounds familiar, it is because this is also a real-life event. Shortly after the accident (?) we are introduced to Feliks (Stephen Stocking) and Mariya (Alley Resident Company member Elizabeth Bunch). Feliks runs a car rental office where Mariya, a reporter, wishes to rent a car. But both seem anxious. Is it just because a large plane has crashed nearby, or is there something more sinister going on here? The truth is hard to find, even within this clever story that features so much real history it’s hard to know where the lines are.
As the play jumps between pre-war Poland, Perestroika-era Russia, and 2010 Russia and East Germany, the characters we’ve already met start to age, while new players emerge in the form of Nikolai’s wife Yevgenia (Liv Rooth), the Russian KGB agent “Vova” (Jason Babinsky) and Ursula (Melissa Pritchett), whose character cannot be revealed without spoiling a couple of major plot points. I have been very careful in my description of this play to not reveal anything substantial. Part of the fun of this complex play is putting all the pieces together.
This is my third experience with playwright Rajiv Joseph. I missed his world premiere of GRUESOME PLAYGROUND INJURIES at The Alley Theatre a few seasons back but I did catch his play A BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO on Broadway a few years back and his other Alley world premiere THE MONSTER AT THE DOOR a couple of years ago. I found TIGER and MONSTER to be abstract yet fascinating plays, with MONSTER particularly odd and non-linear. I was expecting a similar experience with DESCRIBE THE NIGHT, but that is not the case. Yes, the play feels like a Joseph play and has some abstract, perhaps even aloof moments. But unlike its brothers and sisters, this play is much more rooted in the real world. Before writing this review, I did some quick research on the various characters to attempt to determine how much of the play is historical, how much is semi-autobiographical and how much came directly from Rajiv Joseph’s imagination. Based on a few quick internet searches, this is an answer that will take some time to find. That’s how well Joseph has woven this tapestry.
Giovanna Sardelli, who will also stage the play’s New York premiere next month, has done a masterful job of directing. In the very intimate setting of the Quintero Theatre at University of Houston (subbing for the Alley’s Neuhaus Stage while damage from Hurricane Harvey is repaired), this play soars. The simple yet effective set is manipulated between scenes by the actors, but the true magic lies in watching how the time transitions are handled (the projected dates & locations are just part of it) and how the actors age (even sometimes de-volve) in front of us while the scenes change. Pay careful attention to Nikolai and his costume (and even physicality) as the years progress.
This is a three-act play and in today’s “I want it now” atmosphere I could hear some grumblings at the first intermission. But this is an epic play that needs those three acts (and two intermissions) to properly tell this story. Like any good storytelling, it must take its time to introduce the characters and their stories. With as many time periods as this play covers, that takes some time. I was wondering myself why there were two intermissions, but now I understand. The show needs to breathe at certain points. Breaking up the acts was a smart move and in hindsight, it plays out well. But the devil (and perhaps the truth) is in the details. Conversations or anecdotes that seem insignificant in act one may have huge payoffs in the subsequent acts. The play also features what I will now consider one of my favorite “close of act” moments ever in a show. I don’t want to spoil the reveal but it is the final moments of Act II and both the staging and imagery are perfect.
The cast is all-around excellent, with extended tips of the hat to Todd Waite, who takes Nikolai, a character that could easily revert to “stock” army officer traits and makes him fascinating. You know he’s dangerous from the first scene, but you don’t know when (or if) he will ever show it. Much like the unseen shark in the early scenes of “Jaws” he is more frightening by omission than by action. Alley newcomer Liv Rooth must also be spotlighted for her complex portrayal of Yevgenia. Her character may have the most profound arc of the show yet she handles each scene and timeframe perfectly.
The play is presented in a very intimate theatre with general admission tickets. Do not be worried about the lack of assigned seating — there is not a bad seat in this space. I would also not recommend researching the real-life characters presented within the play as their true stories may spoil some major plot points. But do yourself three favors:
First, buy a ticket. This is a brilliant play and I am actually considering a second visit just to watch how well the stories are interwoven and look for clues hidden within the scenes.
Second, take some time after the show to research the characters. They live in some fascinating times from history and all have very interesting stories to tell.
Third, pay VERY close attention during the show. Trust me, as Act III is wrapping up, you’ll be glad you did.
***** out of *****
“Describe the Night”
By Rajiv Joseph
Directed by Giovanna Sardelli
Alley Theatre (Quintero Theatre at University of Houston)
Now through October 15th
Photo: Jason Babinsky as “Vova” in “Describe the Night” at the Alley Theatre