I know exactly where I was on the night of November 9, 2016. There was an election-results viewing party at the Bell House in Gowanus. It was crowded, people were drinking beer, the mood was upbeat and casual — excited, even. Then they called Pennsylvania. Hours later, I was on the floor at a friend’s apartment, somehow engaged in a completely nonsexual wrestling match with his roommate. I realize that sounds bizarre, but I think our bodies were panicking even as our slightly tipsy brains — numb and clinging to hope — stumbled to catch up. The dread and despair had to go somewhere.
Sarah Gancher’s poison-laced “workplace comedy” Russian Troll Farm has its finger squarely on the trigger of that horrible moment, and as it fires away for 100 minutes, it’s almost impossible not to see the past as prologue. With another election looming, Gancher is hardly alone among writers in setting her sights on questions of truth and propaganda, facts and their … alternatives. Jen Silverman’s Spain moved in similarly murky waters, and Jason Robert Brown has set his new musical in a magazine’s fact-checking department. In a program note for Russian Troll Farm, the Vineyard Theatre’s artistic director, Sarah Stern, notes that the play is in conversation with Tina Satter’s Is This a Room, which took the sinister (verbatim) story of Reality Winner — who blew the whistle on Russian interference in the 2016 election — from the Vineyard to Broadway in 2021.
Is This a Room used an actual arrest transcript to create something genuinely menacing — absurd, unsettling, and ambiguous in the inimitable way of truth. Russian Troll Farm takes a different tack, opting instead to explore fictions through fiction, with mixed results. Yes, its characters work at a real-life organization, the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg, which does employ an army of coders and tweeters to sow discord on American social media. And yes, a good percentage of the tweets we see these characters firing off are real in that they were really created by Russian internet trolls and really deployed during the 2016 election. But as Gancher notes in the program, “The Office is not about paper, [and this] play is not about politics. It’s about the people.” While that aim — to unmask the trolls and flesh them out as humans — is potentially compelling, it doesn’t end up generating a consistently powerful engine for the play. There’s a disjointed, somewhat distanced quality to the piece, unaided by director Darko Tresnjak’s reluctance to push moments of style and stakes to their theatrical extremes. Of course, we know what’s coming on the Election Night the trolls are working toward, so we’re hungry for something more, some separate but intertwined coalescence of moral arc and thematic force — something to render the finale newly revelatory and devastating, not simply the dull pang of a familiar trauma.
What we do get feels more like a series of character studies. The upside — and it’s a big one — is that they’re often audaciously funny. Gancher has a confident handle on her play’s comedy, which is meant to be brash and gasp inducing but doesn’t feel cruel for the sake of sensationalism. All five of Russian Troll Farm’s actors are hitting their marks with precision, and the broader the character, the sharper the performance. That’s not all down to the performers themselves: There’s a sense that Gancher is most at home writing demonic flourishes for her maniacal, 4chan-scrolling natural-born troll, Steve (John Lavelle, fearlessly amped up to 11), or strange, robotic ripostes for the dead-eyed expert coder, Egor (an excellent Haskell King). They’ve got more bite and interest to them than the burgeoning romance between supervisor Nikolai (Hadi Tabbal) and department newcomer Masha (Renata Friedman). “I’m gonna knock you down and curb-stomp your vampire wax face, you fucking bat-faced SHIT! You fucking SLOVAKIAN FUCK! SOULLESS, EMOTIONLESS, BLOODLESS, DICKLESS THUMB WITH A FACE DRAWN ON IT!” Steve bellows at Egor, who replies, tonelessly, “Snowflake.”
That’s someone having a good time at a keyboard. It’s when Gancher veers away from the brazenly funny that her play feels clumsiest. Though Masha, a former journalist, experiences the closest thing here to a serious ethical conundrum, it’s half-heartedly committed to. And while the rock-solid Christine Lahti gives her all as Ljuba — the trolls’ steel-and-ice ex-KGB senior manager — she’s also saddled with delivering an overlong late-in-the-game monologue detailing her own tear-jerking backstory. Lahti has charisma and gravity (when has she ever not?), but the writing verges on trite, at once a too-easy solution to the problem of creating complex humans onstage and a portentous stomp on the brake right at the moment when the play should be sweeping toward crisis.
It may also be that Tresnjak’s cool, rather perfunctory directorial touch curiously creates more dissonance, rather than less, as it fails to lean far enough into the play’s shifts. Russian Troll Farm has four parts, and Gancher’s script specifies that “each act is written in a different style … Part One is a workplace comedy … Part Two is a Kafkaesque nightmare … Part Three is a Shakespearean revenge play,” and so on. This kind of stipulation can be a playwright’s way of justifying something that isn’t fully baked, but it can also be a director’s key to unlocking a wily text and helping it cohere into a striking stage event. While Tresnjak gestures toward Gancher’s genres, he doesn’t swing for the fences. Alexander Dodge’s sterile, modular set design and Jared Mezzocchi’s blippy, techy projections keep us planted in a consistent aesthetic, which means the style changes we do get among the four parts feel less intentional than they should. Instead, they come across as writerly vacillation, spitballing approaches rather than slamming the book open on the page that says “KAFKA HORROR” and sticking a dagger in it.
If there’s anyone who gnaws the most meat from his given act, licking his fingers and tossing the bones gleefully to the wolves, it’s Lavelle’s grotesque, devilish Steve. (His American name is an affectation, Gancher winks at us in a script note. Everyone we’re seeing here is Russian — though, thank goodness, no one sounds as if they’re chasing a moose and a squirrel.) Lavelle has done a boatload of Shakespeare, and he calls on it to great effect to turn Steve into a scheming, soliloquizing, beer-bellied beast, seducing and repulsing the audience in equal measure. Even Richard III would have to tip his crown to Steve’s frenzied, flagrant delight as he peers across the lurid green footlights to hit us with friendly little tidbits like “What if I told you multiculturalism is ethnomasochism?” and “Paste this in your Broadway sung-through rap musical: The Enlightenment was the worst event in human history!” and, crucially, “Am I even serious? Who can tell? Maybe this whole homophobic racism thing is ironic actually! … I’m not really racist, I faked it all. Like the Holocaust!” Steve is the kind of role that can disintegrate in the slightest breeze of actor discomfort. But Lavelle bounds across the stage like Nijinsky with plumber’s butt. He cackles and rubs his nipples and would probably twirl his mustache if it were less incorporated into his beard, and the bombast of it all works. He’s a mad, rapacious clown — and as such, the shadow he casts is entirely too familiar.
That level of wit and wickedness is almost enough to carry us along, even if the play’s aspirations toward solemnity don’t quite land. I’m always a little suspicious when writers — both of plays and in plays — start rhapsodizing over the power of stories, as Nikolai, a frustrated screenwriter, does here: “To me, everything we do here just proves the power of imagination!” he insists to his office mates. “Because human beings need stories, they crave them. In terms of mankind’s hierarchy of needs, stories are right between sleep and sex. And if you tell a good enough story, you can change the world.”
That feels easy again. Gancher has slipped into the same quicksand as Silverman had in Spain, a sticky place that’s half-awe and half-shame. “As I researched the IRA’s activities,” Gancher writes in her program note, “I started getting this uncomfortable feeling that … I might be really great at this job. Trolls spend all day making up characters, writing dialogue, staging fights, triggering strong emotions … essentially, they’re playwrights!” While that sounds like a chilling personal realization, what it gives rise to is, in fact, a setting (the Internet Research Agency) and an experiment (give the trolls faces and backstories), rather than the full dramatic arc of a play. Russian Troll Farm is by turns funny, nasty, and both, but it never fully grabs us by the throat. Though it reveres — and fears — “a good story,” it leaves us craving a more surprising one.
Russian Troll Farm: A Workplace Comedy is at the Vineyard Theatre through February 25.