Reviews NYCOff-Broadway Published 8 February 2024

Review: Russian Troll Farm: A Workplace Comedy at Vineyard Theatre

Vineyard Theatre ⋄ January 25-March 3, 2024

A piece of digital theater from the depths of the pandemic feels different in three dimensions. Loren Noveck reviews.

Loren Noveck
Haskell King, John Lavelle, Renata Friedman and Hadi Tabbal in <i>Russian Troll Farm_ A Workplace Comedy</i>. Photo: ©Carol Rosegg

Haskell King, John Lavelle, Renata Friedman and Hadi Tabbal in Russian Troll Farm_ A Workplace Comedy. Photo: ©Carol Rosegg

I first saw (and reviewed) Sarah Gancher’s Russian Troll Farm online in the fall of 2020. It was right when the pandemic started to seem like a thing that might never end, when it seemed like we might never get back to sitting in a room full of other live humans making art in front of you. This play felt like the rare piece of theater actually created for that digital moment, not just politically timely (I saw its livestream just before the 2020 election) but making optimal use of the less-than-optimal conditions under which it had been created. Gancher’s script and Jared Mezzocchi’s multimedia design seemed to be born out of the interstices of the internet, content feeding on form as if the livestream was actually ingesting content from Twitter. (Most of the tweets and other posts that appear in the show are real; the press kit contains a twenty-page sampler of them.) 

So I was really curious to see how that piece of art, which felt so indelibly of its moment, form-wise, would translate back into live theater. But it turns out that while I was thinking about how the play would support the change of form, what I didn’t account for was how different our collective relationship is to the content. Because fall 2020 was also before a mob stormed the Capitol, tweeting about it all the while. It was before Elon Musk bought Twitter. Looking at Russian Troll Farm now, I’m amazed at how old hat all of its tactics seem, how much I’ve grown to presume that everything I see in public is filtered through the viral internet economy, whether that means product placement or influencer marketing or bought-and-paid-for Google results. 

The title itself is basic truth in advertising: this is a play set in a bland conference room at St. Petersburg’s Internet Research Agency. Former journalist Masha (Renata Friedman) is a new transfer into the social media group from the fake news group; here, her job, along with that of her colleagues Egor (Haskell Smith), an emotionless programer; Steve (John Lavelle), an edgy dudebro in loud pants; and team leader Nikolai (Hadi Tabbal), an earnest nepo baby with artistic aspirations, is to write tweets that influence the American election, under the steely eye of their ex-KGB boss, Ljuba (Christine Lahti). Their goal, says Gancher in a program note, was “to make cooperation and even democracy feel hopeless.” 

At the same time, though, she presents the possibility that the trolls’ work serves as a perverse form of creativity, a storytelling medium: “If you tell a good enough story,” says would-be screenwriter Nikolai, “you can change the world.” But in the moment of generative AI, how sure can we be if even the trolls are controlling the story? And when Putin has moved on from undermining U.S. voter confidence to bombing Ukraine, watching a roomful of colleagues, most of whom don’t have any real allegiance to the story they’re selling, exult in their effectiveness starts to edge farther over the line from bleakly comic to outright terrifying. 

Which doesn’t mean the play isn’t, often, quite funny; Gancher has tapped into the weird social vibe of the workplace comedy, with its mismatched array of socially inappropriate misfits, micromanaging bosses, pointless competition to win a microwave, and too much coffee. And the right-before-our-eyes construction of the hashtag #tunnelkids, a conspiracy involving tunnels under Disneyland, disappearing children, and the Clinton family would be even funnier if it weren’t so plausible. The production still conjures the team’s social engineering in the digital sphere effectively, with Mezzocchi again designing projections and videos–augmented by Marcus Doshi’s lighting–that fill the copious white spaces in Alexander Dodge’s stark white conference room of a set.

But in the human realm, the piece rarely gets past chilly. Director Darko Tresnjak moves the actors into conspiratorial pairs as alliances form and fracture: Masha and Nikolai lounge on the floor in a corner as they spark a tentative, doomed romance. Ljuba reprimands Egor in a tense scene that ends with Egor shrinking into the corner of a diner booth. Steve and Egor plot conspiracy while hunched over adjacent toilets in adjoining stalls. Ljuba and Masha perch on desks and drink. But they all seem to be perpetually operating at that same semi-ironic distance from one another as from their work, as if their habit of social engineering can’t be turned off when they’re interacting with other humans. Which might, after all, be the point–as Gancher writes in the program essay, “Algorithms have replaced in-person community to an alarming extent.” All our interactions are equally mediated. 

Which is how Steve, the aggressive Russian nationalist, with his intentionally offensive PUA tactics and his constant talk about his bowel movements, starts to seem like the heart of the piece–because Steve is also, and quite explicitly, playing the audience. It’s a role that would be easy to overplay, but Lavelle never does; Steve is often a buffoon, but he’s the only one who’s in control of his narrative. You see flashes of a more polished, more charming persona from time to time; he’s making a calculated decision to display this person instead. It doesn’t matter whether he’s being ironic or truthful. There might not even be a difference. Nikolai tells Masha, all anyone wants “is to be seen as we are, as we want to be,” but that statement doesn’t feel any more real than their romance. Steve has figured out how to work the algorithm to his advantage.

In the other show I saw this week, The Connector, a liar gets away with his lies, for a long time anyway, by claiming his stories illustrate a truth that’s more important than the facts. But in Russian Troll Farm, the facts are utterly irrelevant. Something becomes true by being written; the only thing that matters is engagement. And while it accurately depicts that dynamic, I wish it paid a little more attention to the humans executing it.

Loren Noveck

Loren Noveck is a writer, editor, dramaturg, and recovering Off-Off-Broadway producer, who was for many years the literary manager of Six Figures Theatre Company. She has written for The Brooklyn Rail, The Brooklyn Paper, and NYTheater now, and currently writes occasionally for HowlRound and WIT Online. In her non-theatrical life, she works in book publishing.

Review: Russian Troll Farm: A Workplace Comedy at Vineyard Theatre Show Info

Produced by Vineyard Theatre

Directed by Darko Tresnjak

Written by Sarah Gancher

Scenic Design Renata Friedman, Haskell King, Christine Lahti, John Lavelle, Hadi Tabbal

Lighting Design Marcus Doshi

Sound Design Darron L. West and Beth Lake

Cast includes Renata Friedman, Haskell King, Christine Lahti, John Lavelle, Hadi Tabbal

Show Details & Tickets

Running Time 100 minutes


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