Review: Real Russians and Fake News in ‘Describe the Night’

Rajiv Joseph’s new play jams 90 years of lies, fantasies, propaganda and conspiracy into just under three hours. Also: the worst soup ever.

Comments: 23

  1. Stoppard-esque time-twisting thriller with an excellent cast. A tasty intellectual drama with shifting time frames -- much like "Arcadia." Eastern European intrigue traps writers and journalists. You must pay close attention to the characters and dialogue, Amazing actors, especially Burstein, Grenier and Benko who play characters at varying ages. Moore, Bowers and Jones were very strong, too. The play takes place over 90 years and shifts back and forth in time. Rajiv Joseph's writing was also breathtaking in "Guards at the Taj.".

  2. Totally agree that this is a leaden, tiresome play. This is one of the worse plays we have seen at The Atlantic (which usually does great work). Oh well.

  3. I had to leave after the first act. Felt like watching bad television. Ugh!

  4. Completely disagree. I really enjoyed this play. Zach Grenier overacted a bit, but I got absorbed into the twisty, postmodern plot.

  5. I'm a huge fan of Rajiv Joseph, and I thought this play was pretty darn good -- fascinating subject matter, great acting, well worth an evening at the Atlantic. The ending, however, could have gone in a different direction. There's real power in the honest, tje innocent, the aspiring ones.

  6. Adored this play and found it effortless, intricate, and incredibly daring in its mix of fact and fiction, grounded reality and flights of wholesale imagination. I felt the time flew by, and the interweaving of different timelines kept us on our toes, intellectually engaged and ever hopeful. It's a work that speaks to art and risk, revolution and loss. It is a historical play that feels devastatingly relevant. I think Jesse Green is one of the best critics of theater in the business, but on this one, I think he missed the boat.

  7. So what if the plot is convoluted? If the audience pays attention it will understand very clearly what is happening. Describe the Night is engrossing, disturbing and very risky on the playwright's part. Not all the risks pay off--the leech soup was too weird; still this is the most interesting play I have seen in a long time. (It does bring to mind Tom Stoppard's plays.) Seeing the Soviet manipulate truth was chilling, because it so closely resembles what the current US president is doing. The actors were excellent. I agree with another post who said the "time flew by". I wasn't bored for a second.

  8. I am not surprised that Jesse Green spends the first four paragraphs on the leech soup. His reviews often betray his squeamishness with the subject matter of a play -- see his reviews of The Boy Who Danced on Air, Office Hour or Mary Jane for example -- rather than a critical appraisal of the work and the production. That is why I don't give his reviews much weight. He is not at New York Magazine any more, and I don't care about his personal preferences.

  9. I think you ought to re-watch this play and listen a little more carefully. This is an irresponsibly dismissive and flip review to be published in the New York Times.

  10. "Tiresome" is putting it mildly. Lame writing, lame acting. (Full disclosure: I saw only the first act - that was more than enough.)

  11. I’m with Jesse on this one. So boring and self indulgent. On and on, words and more words in Boris and Natasha accents. We get it - the regime was and is oppressive. I suspect that those that liked it are just congratulating themselves on having been able to successfully tie all the loose ends together neatly by the last scene.

  12. Totally disagree. The play uses Babel's diary (barely mentioned in the review) as a metaphor for the plasticity of truth, the power of the State, the resistance of the conscience, and the deceptions of memory. It posits Babel and Nikolai as the polarities of the Russian soul: the writer who expresses truth through fiction and the state apparatchik who turns lies into “Truth” by the use of brutal power. This is a complex and provocative play that is worth your time. Though far from perfect, it is far more worthy than the lightweight material frequently praised by Times critics (including the playwright's much inferior and somewhat silly Guards at the Taj).

  13. I disagree with Jesse Green about Rajiv Joseph's "Guards at the Taj", which I very much liked, but I wholeheartedly agree with him about "Describe the Night". I couldn't wait for it to be over. Given what they had to work with, I found no fault with the acting. The blame for this play's deficiencies lies strictly with the playwright. Save your time and money and pass on this one.

  14. Well-written but slim-themed, vastly repetitive and glacially paced. Annoyingly, one of the actors shouts his lines whenever he speaks which is all the time. At the end of the second act, a ‘fake’ Berlin wall falls forward from the back of the stage sending a huge roaring wave of dust and thinly shredded plastic bits into the house. Don’t sit anywhere near the stage, unless you are planning to shower afterwards. If you already weren’t annoyed by the play, this will surely send you over the edge.

  15. Very disappointed with this review. I saw the play about a week ago and found it engrossing and involving. Loved the cast although I would have been ok with Grenier lowering his voice some. Sat in the first row and got the full blast of the falling wall - not a problem. Have been recommending the play to others continually since seeing it. I like Rajiv Joseph's work quite a bit. You do need to be alert and paying attention to this one.

  16. I strongly disagree with Jesse Green. I LOVED this play. It was fascinating, beautifully acted, and completely engrossing. I've seen most of Rajiv Joseph's plays and this one is his finest yet. Don't believe everything you read -- see this play and make up your own mind!

  17. Thank you for saying this. I saw this play with a friend who has been working in the Theatre industry of New York for 40 years, and we both agreed that this play is a treat, one of the best we've seen.

  18. I see a lot of theater and Describe The Night was easily one of my favorite productions of the year. I don’t have enough time to see all the shows I want to see (who does?) but this one I saw twice. I was completely swept up in the magic of the storytelling. It was theatrical and made me think. The direction and design beautifully complemented the script. I gut-laughed, I was shaken. And ultimately I found it profoundly moving in a way that is still haunting me.

  19. I saw it in previews and enjoyed the excesses and theatricality even if much of the dialogue about "truth and not truth" or what have you in Communism is, as subject matter, known by everyone and thus difficult to convey in any way that's truly fresh. Tina Benko, who I'd never heard of, was a joy to watch. It was a rare trip to the theater for me and made me want to see more plays.

  20. What is the point of a review like this? Is it to prevent plays like this from ever being attempted? Is it meant to try and injure the playwright? It feels so sour that all I can imagine is Jesse Green as a frustrated and blocked artist himself and not happy about it.

  21. Perhaps the review could be entitled "A Sour View of a Complex, Passionate Play. Rajiv Joseph attempts big things here, and not everything works (not sure why what to make of the character introduced at the end). But I was totally engrossed, sometimes scrambling to put together the pieces that were revealed in scenes that went back and forth in time, but always gratified by its theme and ideas and thrilled by the movement of the admittedly complex plot. There were some beautiful scenes among the three main characters introduced in Act 1. (The scene where Yevgenia "auditions for Babel's movie is romantic and charming.) The more contemporary scenes, which Green mystifyingly singles out for praise, are fine but certainly not what I rehemberwith pleasure. This is the first play I had scene by Joseph but I will certainly look for his future productions.

  22. One of the best theater shows I've seen among over 500 theater shows I've seen in the last 8 years.

  23. I saw the play yesterday afternoon and was enthralled. I'm sorry Jesse Green didn't do a better job of conveying the depth of the plot and the very fine acting. At nearly three hours (including two intermissions), it didn't feel as long as some 90 minute plays I've seen recently. And it makes me want to read Babel, whose works I've never read.