ICYMI: The 'Best New American Play' Is from Houston

Rajiv Joseph's Describe the Night, which premiered at the Alley last fall, took top honors at the 2018 Obie Awards.

By Morgan Kinney May 23, 2018

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Jason Babinsky as Vova in Alley Theatre’s World Premiere of Describe the Night by Rajiv Joseph.

Image: Lynn Lane

Describe the Night, Rajiv Joseph's century-spanning Russian epic that premiered in Houston last fall, took home top honors at the 2018 Obie Awards as the "Best New American Play."

The 63rd annual awards were co-presented Monday evening by the Village Voice and the American Theatre Wing and recognize "excellence in off-Broadway and off-off Broadway theatre."

Joseph's play debuted at the 2017 Alley All New Festival and officially premiered at UH's Quintero Theatre when Hurricane Harvey flooded the company's brutalist downtown fortress. The work later made the jump to an off-Broadway production at the Atlantic Theater Company when its Houston run ended in October.

If you didn't catch either version, Describe the Night tells a complex, if convoluted, story in three acts. Joseph uses the diary of real-life writer Isaac Babel as a narrative spine to expound upon Russian history from 1920 to 2010 and suggests a number of contemporary parallels that were a tad on-the-nose (explicit references to "fake news" were one groan-inducing example). As Doni Wilson wrote in her Houstonia review, the play hit plenty of familiar notes that were only partially redeemed by clever writing and performances:

Just when you think you can’t stand another “truth versus reality” themed work, these actors are able to revive that theme in interesting ways. The idea that telling fictional stories is not the same as lying is not original, but set in the high-stakes context of world wars and KGB intimidation, it becomes more interesting, more believable as a presence. Babel says, “Am I a liar? No, I tell stories.” But in some instances, he is a liar, and in others, his stories do indeed reveal important truths.

National reviews were mostly mixed or negative, with Jesse Green of the New York Times calling the play "self-indulgent" before ultimately dismissing it as "a work of major ambition, however far it falls short."

Nevertheless, the playwright didn't forfeit the opportunity for a victory lap, issuing the following statement: "This play doesn't exist without the Alley Theatre's commitment to new works, and their tenacity through such an awful storm. Now let's go Rockets!”

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