While still in college, Rajiv Joseph became interested in the writings of Isaac Babel, a Russian author, journalist and colorful character who fell in and out of favor with the Communist rulers of his country.
For the past three years, playwright Joseph, a Pulitzer finalist for Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo (he also wrote Gruesome Playground Injuries) has been working on a play that he says is unlike one he’s ever done before. And while Babel is a character in it, his story is not the only one Joseph is telling. "It's three plays that intersect into one larger play," he says.
Describe the Night at the Alley Theatre starts with Babel (perhaps best known for Red Cavalry) covering the years from 1920 to 1940. The second takes place in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and a KGB agent. And the final one is set in 2010 with the airplane crash in Russia of a plane carrying several members of the Polish government.
Joseph said he liked Babel's stories before coming across his diary he kept when he was a wire correspondent in the Russo-Polish War. "I was interested in him and his life. The more research I did on him the more I was interested in his relationship with in this guy Nikolai Yezhov. who was the head of Stalin's secret police. It was interesting to me that this writer would be close friends with this man who was basically running Stalin's purges. And the fact that Isaac Babel on top of that had an affair with the man's wife."
"And then I connected to that plane crash because I was so stunned by that and when that happened in 2010 they were saying it had reopened age-old wounds between Russia and Poland. And I was thinking, that war was when Isaac Babel was in Poland."
Then, Joseph thought, he needed something in the middle to connect Babel's story with the plane crash and that's when he came up with the mysterious KGB agent "who is based on Vladimir Putin. I'm interested politics and history so Putin's place in the world for the past 20 years or so has been an interesting one."
Joseph said he worked through writing all this off and on for three years and developed some of it working with acting students at New York University, in fact, he says, he might not have developed it the way he did if he hadn't worked with graduate students there.
"They have a program there where you come in with a very general idea and the actors play with that. They play games and they do improvisation and they help you kind of develop your ideas." The play is performed in three acts and is about three hours long, he said.
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“In spite of it being this kind of lengthy play about Russia and Poland and Communism, it’s not a history lesson. I’m certainly playing with the facts and mythology and rumor and conspiracy theories. And it’s also entertainment,” says Joseph.
“There’s comedy in it. There’s love and sex in it. The effect of watching the three acts is like binge-watching a show that you like," he adds. "I don’t feel like it’s one of those theatrical experiences that’s going to exhaust an audience.”
Performances are scheduled for September 15 through October 15 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays and 2:30 p.m.; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Because of damage done to the Alley Theatre during Hurricane Harvey, performances have been moved to the University of Houston’s Quintero Theatre. 3351 Cullen. For information, visit alleytheatre.org. $35-$75.