Rajiv Joseph has written a strange but often interesting play that is being offered by the Atlantic Theater Company. It relates to the life of Russian writer Isaac Babel, who was executed in 1940 at the age of 45 during the purges of intellectuals and others under the rule of Joseph Stalin.
Danny Burstein is excellent as Babel, who forms a long friendship with Nikolai, presumably the real Nikolai Yezev, played with bluster by Zach Grenier. Nikolai first is seen as a military officer during the post-World War I battling in Poland. He and Babel, working as a journalist, strike up an unlikely friendship. Nikolai later becomes the chief of the dreaded NKVD. Babel has been arrested and pressured to confess to bogus charges against him. It turns out that Nikolai is the one who kill him, which seems like a contrivance. (Historical note: Yezev was also executed.)
The play jumps between different time structures, the perils of life in Russia and Poland, the cracking of the Berlin Wall and more recent times. The weaving of characters into the different periods, with some cast members playing multiple roles, can be confusing even though the actors are exceedingly good.
A thread that runs through the play is passing along a journal that Babel kept, which contains observant stories about life as he saw it. The playwright gives Babel a fictional granddaughter, who comes into possession of the journal. Presumably, this is meant to symbolize that works of a writer can endure even though he is eliminated.
Grenier is outstanding as Nikolai, shown in various periods, and Nadia Bowers is wonderfully versatile. As Mariya, Nikolai’s wife, she plays a subservient woman with a talent for acting that Babel tries to demonstrate. She blossoms into sensuality as she enacts a scenario that Babel dictates with Nikolai watching. (It becomes clear that Mariya and Babel have an affair, as was the case in real life.) Then, before our eyes, she morphs into the elderly, bent over Mrs. Petrovna, who becomes important to the drama in another way. Other cast members include Stephen Stocking, Tina Benko, Max Gordon Moore and Rebecca Naomi Jones, all impressive.
Director Giovanna Sardelli handles moments of intense conversation with skill, and also accentuates the periodic outbursts. Tim Mackabee’s set nicely accommodates the various locales and time frames.
Still, there is something lacking in what the author has tried to do. One might yearn to learn more about Babel with less skipping around to make connections. Ideas clash, and the result is more of an uneasy mix than the searing look at what happened to Babel that we might want to see instead of the convoluted fictional efforts to span history. At the Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street. Phone: 866-811-4111. Reviewed December 11, 2017.