Review: Describe the Night at Woolly Mammoth Theatre

By Heather Rosen


Describe The Night is a play about how the truth is sometimes altered, sometimes by the speaker (the voluntary or involuntary liar) and sometimes by those who later tell the story. Like many of the plays at Woolly Mammoth, Describe The Night makes you think; however, throughout the show, this play had you wondering what was true and what was not true, which was actually quite frustrating and ultimately, somewhat distracting.


The story follows the 90 year journey of a diary written by Isaac Babel, a real figure from history – a Russian Jew who was famous for his literary work. Isaac first meets his friend and nemesis, Nikolai Yezhov – another historical figure - while writing in this diary. They get into a debate about what is true and what is false, and then Isaac launches into a series of statements that sound believable to Nikolai, but Isaac tells him that everything he said was a lie. But was it?


The story continues, but it is not told in linear sequence - it goes back and forth between the 1920s, the 1940s and the 1980s and between Poland, Russia and Germany. Fortunately, the dates and places were projected behind the stage, but I found it difficult to follow the characters and their stories nonetheless. Perhaps the playwright chose to tell the story in this way in order to make us feel like we were piecing together a puzzle, but at the end, there were still some missing pieces. For example, the one constant throughout the story was the diary – it was either in or referenced in nearly every scene – but the significance of the diary was never really discussed. All we know is that Isaac was writing about his surroundings in Scene 1. I wondered whether the diary just served as proof that Isaac lived and was related to the characters who possessed his diary. (Note: the diary is discussed in the Production Dramaturg’s notes in the program, so if you see the show, make sure to read the program ahead of time.) Also, I felt that there were holes in Yevgenia’s escape story, and I would have like to know more about what happened to her child.


Most of the performances were strong – I believed that Nikolai and Vova were morally corrupt, angry people – and I felt empathy for Isaac and for Urzula. I didn’t get to know Mariya or Feliks’ characters – they weren’t on stage for as long as the other characters, and neither of them shared much about themselves. Also, it was difficult to tell if what they were saying was actually true because they were mostly speaking under duress. The character Yevgenia had a large and very memorable role, but it was also difficult to empathize with her character because you were never sure what was real. Did she have magic powers? Was she crazy? Did she care about her husband Nikolai, or Isaac, or Urzula, or was everything she did and said simply done to survive?


At the end of the play, and also in real life, Isaac and Nikolai – two men who were once celebrated and admired by the military and political leaders in 1940s Russia - fell out of favor for reasons that were not discussed in the show. They were made to confess to certain “facts” that may or may not have been true. Once again, the audience is left wondering what the characters actually did or did not do. Was Isaac actually a spy? Was Nikolai homosexual?


In addition to the diary, the other constant in the 90 year tale was the set. It did not change much over the years or in different locations. On either end of the stage was a 2-story structure that served mainly as holding rooms for the characters. There were also some interesting things that hung down from the ceiling in certain scenes, including an airplane wing, some narrow bookshelves, and an odd picture of 2 black (presumably military) boots that helped to enhance the set. The most interesting part of the set were the 6 or so “flaps” built into the floor that were opened and closed to either hide the diary or to reveal an incinerator (created with lighting). I also liked seeing the characters change costumes and wigs onstage (in plain sight) and the dramatic setting we see onstage just prior to intermission.


My take-away from this performance was that facts can change depending on who tells the story and the storyteller’s circumstances or motive. I believe there was a line about how two people can even describe the same night differently, as if to ask: What is a fact other than one person’s perception? This theme was also reinforced in the lobby during intermission as before-and-after doctored photos of political figures were projected onto the wall. The photos and the stories behind them were actually quite interesting. But I left feeling frustrated that we never learned what had actually happened to the characters. And perhaps that was the point – maybe the playwright wanted us to feel more frustrated that “fake news” is still being disseminated - but not having a clear point of reference made the show difficult to follow.

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All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.

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