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A play about truth and a government’s attempts to ignore, obscure, or outright modify it could easily be mistaken for a reaction to the Trump election and Russia’s suspected meddling in it. But Describe the Night, Rajiv Joseph’s play currently running at Woolly Mammoth, isn’t about Trump at all; at least, not directly. Joseph began writing his tale in 2014. This timeless play feels vitally important in our current age, but is a good reminder of how in the past, governments have spurned truth, subversive art, and journalism—and of the disastrous consequences that followed those actions.
At the center of Night is the relationship between two men, bespectacled writer Isaac Babel (Jonathan Martin) and a blockheaded soldier, Nikolai Yezhov (Tim Getman). They meet one evening in Poland in the 1930s, a night that Isaac is struggling to describe in his notebook—hence the title. The endeavor flummoxes Nikolai. “True is true,” according to the soldier, so how could there be any difficulty in recording things as they are?
The elusive nature of capital-t truth propels the play over a nearly three-hour runtime and a span of about 90 years. After Nikolai rises to the head of the NKVD, the Soviet Union’s interior ministry, he comes to change his opinion on truth—“True is what we say is true,” he proclaims. We see the dire consequences of that line of thought as the Great Purge commences and sweeps up Nikolai’s wife (Regina Aquino), her daughter (Moriamo Temidayo Akibu), and his best friend along with it, and culminates in the meteoric rise to power of another ambitious young soldier by the name of Vladimir (Danny Gavigan).
Watching Isaac run logical circles around the dim-witted and quick-tempered Nikolai is deeply satisfying, and funny, too. The persistence of their friendship, even as Nikolai grows in power and menace and Isaac starts faltering in his attempts to step out of the way, is unlikely but important.
The further the play strays from this relationship, the murkier things get. A side-plot with a plucky reporter (Kate Eastwood Norris) chasing down the truth behind the suspicious 2010 airplane crash that killed the president of Poland could have been a satisfying thriller on its own, but here it feels tacked on, picked up in scene two and not again until hours later, as the play is nearing its end.
Director John Vreeke has reigned in this ever-straying and expanding plot with some classic Woolly flourishes. Timeline jumps are charted with quick set and costume changes, including one spectacular time change where an actress is quickly aged-up with makeup on stage. In fact, there’s almost no backstage to speak of at all—insert here your own interpretations of transparency and truthfulness—and the actors not on the small stage tend to haunt the action from the wings.
Joseph has a lot of things to say about truth and a charming and darkly humorous knack for how to say it. His efforts earned him a 2018 Obie Award for this play, and the honor is deserved. The only real complaint with Night is that he’s stuffed so much into this one story that it feels like an absolute slog once its mysteries have been revealed and it lurches toward its conclusion. Still, an appropriately caffeinated audience will find a lot that resonates as true.
To June 23 at 641 D St. NW. $20–$89. (202) 393-3939. woollymammoth.net.