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Danny Burstein portrays doomed Soviet author Isaac Babel in Describe the Night
Welcome to Building Character, TDF Stages' ongoing series on actors and how they create their roles
The opening scene of Rajiv Joseph's history-inspired drama Describe the Night takes place in 1920, as the young writer Isaac Babel travels through Soviet-occupied Poland with the Red Cavalry. That's 15 years after Tevye was expelled from Anatevka in Fiddler on the Roof -- and that's not just some random association. Both men are Russian Jews with tortured relationships to their heritage who become victims of anti-Semitism. And both characters have been played by six-time Tony nominee Danny Burstein, who's currently starring as Babel in Describe the Night at the Atlantic Theater Company.
In this New York premiere, Babel forms a prickly friendship with hot-tempered Red Calvary captain Nikolai (Tony nominee Zach Grenier), becomes a literary star, and has an affair with Nikolai's fragile wife Yevgenia (Tina Benko), which spells his undoing during Stalin's purges. Other sequences unfold around the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and in Smolensk, Russia in 2010, when a suspicious airplane crash killed several Polish politicos. Joseph's play is a deft weaving of fact, rumor, and fiction, with the characters struggling to find themselves through the fog of history.
Best known for his comical, blustery turns in musicals such as The Drowsy Chaperone, South Pacific, and Fiddler, Burstein is in subtle dramatic mode in Describe the Night, wooing ladies, spinning poetry out of thin air, and, harrowingly, pleading for his life. "When I read it, it was so different, so ambitious, it scared me," Burstein admits. He cites a heartbreaking scene in which Babel visits Yevgenia in an asylum as well as his gruesome interrogation by a vengeful Nikolai. "I've never been shot onstage in such a dramatic way," Burstein says before adding the eight-decade-old spoiler: "I was devastated by the fact that he was killed at the end, and I thought, God, I just have to do it."
The plot of Describe the Night is threaded by Babel's 1920 diary, which passes through various hands over a century. Serendipitously, the one time Burstein kept a journal was while studying at the Moscow Art Theatre in 1989, when Community Russia was on its last legs. During rehearsals, Burstein drew on his memories of late Soviet gloom and hardship. "You know, they didn't have toilet paper -- it was like being on the moon," he recalls. "They would have entire stores, right? Like a bodega, filled with two products: matzo crackers and jelly. And the line around the block to get one of those two was ridiculous."
Even though the play is a compact affair with mostly two- or three-character scenes, the thematic and historical ground it covers is daunting. What does Burstein tell his friends when they ask what it's about? "Three hours," he jokes before turning serious. "It follows the story of Isaac Babel's diary and the people who deal with it -- how they deal with the reality of what's in the book and the reality of the situations that they're living through. It's the philosophical argument about what truth is. To me, that's very ambitious, especially at this time in the history of our country. It's worth thinking about, worth arguing about."
While Burstein doesn't have any gigs lined up after Describe the Night, chances are he will do something on TV or Broadway (the guy has a son in college, after all). But he would like to mix things up, denominationally speaking. "I can't wait to play the Pope next, I'll be honest with you," he says. "I've got a lot of Jews under my belt. I'm constantly looking for things that are challenging, so we'll see."
David Cote is an arts journalist, playwright, and opera librettist based in NYC. Follow him at @davidcote. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Rebecca Naomi Jones and Danny Burstein in Describe the Night. Photos by Ahron R. Foster.
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