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Review: ‘Describe the Night’ Bites Off Too Much To Chew?

Describe the Night

By Jil Picariello, Theater Editor, December 6, 2017

Rajiv Joseph’s last play at the Atlantic Theater, Guards at the Taj, featured so much blood that the two women in front of me walked out. I don’t mean that as a criticism of Joseph. I mean it as a criticism of the weak-willed women. Having some guts—literally, figuratively—is what good theater is all about.

The only bloody thing in Joseph’s latest, Describe the Night, is the leech soup served in the second act. It’s made with live leeches and before the critters feed you, you must feed them, by pricking your fingertips with a needle and inserting them into the bowl. You nourish them, they nourish you. There’s a metaphor there somewhere, but it’s lost in an overlong, overly wordy mash-up of history and invention.

(l. to r.) Max Gordon Moore and Zach Grenier in 'Describe the Night;' photo: Ahron R. Foster.

(l. to r.) Max Gordon Moore and Zach Grenier in ‘Describe the Night;’ photo: Ahron R. Foster.

We get real and imagined events, braided together and spiraling over nearly a century of Russian history. We meet the writer Isaac Babel, secret police chief Nikolai Yezhov, and a cruel and domineering young man nicknamed Vova who is bears a remarkable resemblance to a cruel and domineering older man running Russia today. The story moves from 1920 to nearly the present day with stops along the way in the 1930s and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Babel’s and Yezhov’s lives twist and twine, and sprinkled amidst their stories (as if they weren’t enough) there’s pretty much all of modern Russian history, plus a love affair, a (real-life) airplane crash, a car-rental agent, some ducks, many myths and prophecies, a grandchild, not to mention that bloody soup.

Tina Benko and Danny Burstein in 'Describe the Night;' photo: Ahron R. Foster.

Tina Benko and Danny Burstein in ‘Describe the Night;’ photo: Ahron R. Foster.

It’s terribly difficult to describe it all (without taking practically as long as the nearly three hour play itself), but suffice it to say that the work is ambitious. Terrifically ambitious, sprawling, overlong, overplotted, uneven, and filled with wonderful performances (Danny Burstein and Tina Benko are standouts in a great cast). But, unfortunately, unlike the leech soup, it does not nourish the hungry theatergoer.




Describe the Night at the Atlantic Theater, 336 West 20th Street, through December 24, 2017. Run time: 2 hours and 45 minutes with two intermissions. Written by Rajiv Joseph. Directed by Giovanna Sardelli. Cast: Tina Benko, Nadia Bowers, Danny Burstein, Zach Grenier, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Max Gordon Moore and Stephen Stocking.

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Cover: Danny Burstein, Zach Grenier and Tina Benko in ‘Describe the Night;’ photo: Ahron R. Foster.


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