If good intentions were enough, then Stephan Morrow’s Darkness After Night: Ukraine at the Theater for the New City in the East Village would be a major hit. (The play is dedicated to and inspired by Arthur Koestler’s novel, Darkness at Noon (1940), which depicted the Stalinist Purges of 1938 in the Soviet Union in allegorical form.)
Morrow has written, directed and is acting in this play which—according to his heartfelt program notes—shines a light on the untenable horrors of the war that Putin/Russia is illegally waging on the Ukraine. He has composed a work that totters between dark war stories and spy intrigue with him as the focus figure, a story with a darkly optimistic twist.
In Darkness, a character named Number One (Joe Marshall, properly cool in his villainy) faces off with Dubashin (Morrow, terribly earnest and animated), a Russian commander who changes sides as he sees the death and destruction waged upon an innocent population.
The complicated plot is acted on a sparsely furnished stage, divided into several playing areas (no scenic designer credited), dramatically lit by Alex Bartenieff. The also uncredited costumes were perfectly respectable
As the play opens, young Myshkin (Liam Kyle McGowan, bumbling, but eventually convincing) is being beaten in a prison cell, saved only by Dubashin’s intervention. Soon, the tables are turned and Dubashin is the prisoner being subjected to psychological torture by Myshkin.
Prominent during the play is the character of the Anchorwoman whose news flashes act as Greek chorus commentary throughout the play. As played by the lovely Natalia Volkodaeva, she is authoritative and sexy at the same time as she delivers her news with an ironic wink.
There is another female character. Enter tech expert Andreyeva (Emilie Bienne, elegantly avoiding any femme fatale clichés) who intrigues and riles Dubashin. They become a romantic item in the midst of all the surrounding intrigue and violence. Their relationship has its ups and downs as Dubashin’s fortunes and alliances shift.
The play is also populated with operatives from other countries: American C.I.A. agent John Kane (Carl Ellis Grant, calm amidst the ongoing chaos) and Middle-Easterner Anwar Ibn Suleiman (Josh Alter, finding all the colorful shadings of a small role), both of whom add their own complications to the unwieldy plot.
Darkness unfolds in many very short scenes with some confusing transitions. Dubashin, the traitor to Russia, finally gets to confront Number One in a knock-down personal battle. The only thing that can be said for this denouement is that it is wishful thinking of the highest order.
There is more than a whiff of a vanity production here, leavened by Morrow’s “good intentions.” Morrow is, perhaps, a tad self-indulgent to have put himself in the action hero part of a military do-gooder and he could use a dramaturg who could shape the disparate scenes into a well-oiled whole.
Morrow doesn’t quite succeed in living up to the intentions of his moving program notes. His wish to publicize and humanize the plight of the Ukrainians is buried under the bluster of a complicated spy-versus-spy scenario.
Darkness After Night: Ukraine (through January 8, 2023)
Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-254-1109 or visit http://www.theaterforthenewcity.net
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission
A well-intentioned take on the terrible war being waged upon Ukraine.