In the 1920s, Isaac Babel (Danny Burstein), a Russian journalist stationed in Poland, enters his thoughts in a diary. He writes about the night, the field, the soldier with whom he shares a pilfered wine bottle (Zach Grenier). In 2010, a plane crashes, the Polish government is instantly obliterated and the diary slips into unlikely new hands. In the intervening years, regimes are toppled, friendships are tested, unlikely offspring emerge and the truth about everything that’s happened is repeatedly tested.
The cast of Describe the Night is excellent. Mr. Burstein has a remarkably natural presence on stage that sets him apart from the rest of the cast. It may be an unfair distinction in a play where many of the actors are asked to employ accents and tactics that are decidedly non-natural but it is noticeable nonetheless. Many of the characters make it through decades on stage and the audience is treated to the sight of Mr. Grenier and Tina Benko shifting between their younger and elder selves front and center. They juggle their tasks with ease, swapping wigs and glasses while sifting through the various forms of youth and old age.
The great flexibility of the truth hangs heavily over Describe the Night. Lies are introduced at the play’s outset as though we may not be familiar with the concept. They start out harmless enough, as a diversion for two people doing their best to ignore grim truths. Soon lies become everything. Short stories are lies, basic descriptions are lies, official records are lies, personal histories are lies. Lies allow a violent and vindictive thug to assume a position of frightening global power. And yet eventually Describe the Night comes full circle, advocating for the importance of flexible facts. It’s an interesting conclusion given the current political climate but perhaps appropriate for a play so suspicious of objectivity. Our ability to mold the truth to our will may cause considerable harm but it can also get us through the night.
Describe the Night runs through December 24th at the Linda Gross Theater. 336 W. 20th Street New York, NY. 2 hours 45 minutes. Two intermissions.