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‘Russian Troll Farm’ Review: Clock In, Undermine Democracy, Clock Out

They’re a team that might have been put together from a sitcom template: the sad-sack manager, the snappish supergeek, the handsome wolf, the gruff supervisor and the bright-eyed newcomer. Together in their cramped quarters they banter, flirt, scheme and celebrate.

But these are not characters from “The Office” or “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” making paper or producing the news. Paper, for them, is passé; their world is an electronic mole hole. And what they publish is certainly not news.

Nevertheless, the five “trolls” in “Russian Troll Farm: A Workplace Comedy” — Sarah Gancher’s trenchant new play about state-sponsored interference in the 2016 presidential election — are, like the employees of Dunder Mifflin and WJM-TV, just doing their jobs.

Does it make much difference to the genre or to the world that those jobs happen to be evil?

Because here’s what these fictional characters are well-paid to do at the (real) Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg: create tweets and posts to sow discord and doubt among Americans approaching the polls with high emotion and low information. Their goal: to elect Donald J. Trump. Their scruples: undetectable.

Take the first project that bright-eyed Masha (Danielle Slavick) collaborates on after arriving in the disinformation department from the fake news department in April 2016. It’s a job typical of the unit’s work — and not far from what actually happened that year. Collaborating with the sad-sack manager, Nikolai (Greg Keller), she spins out a thread of tweets suggesting that tunnels leading to the Mexican border from beneath Disneyland are a conduit for Hillary Clinton’s pedophile ring. When the hashtag #tunnelkids takes off, there is joy in Room 313K, as if she had sold a poem to The New Yorker.

That you feel excited, too, even as you are disgusted by a meme that somehow remains sticky today, is a sign not only of the power of the genre but also of Gancher’s knack for creating tension by yoking the real to the fake, the familiar to the grotesque. (Her time spent as an intern on “The Colbert Report” might have honed that skill.) The content and form are also ideally matched in Jared Mezzocchi and Elizabeth Williamson’s beautifully realized production; this is digitally native theater, not just a play plopped into a Zoom box.

We do not, for instance, get to know the wolfish Steve (Ian Lassiter) solely through his dialogue with the others, pungently reactionary though it is. (“The Enlightenment was the worst event in human history!”) We also experience him through imagery. His juvenile fantasy involving the redemption of mythic Russia through the manly intercession of Vladimir Putin is rendered in hilariously clunky animation. Likewise, an after-work scene at a karaoke bar (“I’ll Be Your Mirror” is prominently lip-synced) introduces us visually to the moral self-doubt beneath all the bravado. Virtual backdrops, usually a distraction in their raggedness, are used here as a deliberate aesthetic, allowing the trolls to occupy one space, dissolve into semitransparency and get eaten away at their edges.

As the action hurtles toward the election, changes in strategy parallel the hiccups — the “Access Hollywood” tapes! The Comey letter! — in the presidential race. By October, the directives get more weirdly specific: “I need tweets aimed at divorced white mothers with health problems, ages 55 to 74, in Kenosha, Wisconsin,” Ljuba, the supervisor, instructs Egor, the supergeek.

Throughout, the success of the trolls’ political efforts is counterpointed with their personal and interpersonal failures. A romance blooms and fizzles, with bad consequences. Steve and Egor (Haskell King) turn their disinformation skills against one of their own, also with bad consequences.

In fact, all consequences of bad faith are shown to be bad, but each in its own style. Masha and Nikolai progress from the nervous smiles of a rom-com to the sad eyes of a Russian epic. Steve wields filters and emojis as if he were living in TikTok, with about the same attention span. Ljuba (Mia Katigbak, thrillingly icy) gets a mini-documentary, Ken Burns-style; where can it lead her but to the dustbin of history?

Our ability to care about people as awful as these says a lot about human susceptibility to the emotional manipulation the trolls practice, and more than I care to admit about similar uses of theater itself. But it’s just that kind of insight that makes Gancher’s play so urgent, smart and chewy. No wonder the presenting institutions — TheaterWorks Hartford and TheaterSquared in Fayetteville, Ark., in association with the Brooklyn-based Civilians — came together after a first visual experiment with the material just seven weeks ago to mount the complicated production before the election. (Live performances continue through Saturday; a recording will be available through Nov. 2.)

I’m glad they did; “Russian Troll Farm” is one of the first new full-length plays I’ve seen since theater moved online that is rewarding as a text, makes the most of excellent actors and approaches full engagement with the new, hybrid form. Even so, I noticed the effects of the haste. Story logic does not always track. A good trim would keep us better focused on the key issues. In some admittedly enjoyable sequences I felt that the creative team had fallen too much in love with its clever effects — a criticism Ljuba lobs repeatedly at her trolls.

That’s because everyone wants to justify what they’re doing instead of facing the truth. (It was a smart choice to avoid Russian accents, suggesting how universal the instinct is.) Masha sees her work as journalism, even if it’s fake; Steve sees folklore; Nikolai sees dramaturgy; and Egor sees a form of human connection otherwise utterly absent from his life. In the play’s most unexpected and moving moment he speaks with reverence about the courage and defiance of the Black Americans he is supposed to be trying to subvert.

Though “Russian Troll Farm” is filled with deeply sad people doing deeply insupportable things like that, it is billed as a comedy. For now, it’s a bracingly grim one; whether it becomes one in the traditional sense, with a happy ending, remains to be seen. In the meantime, it’s as good an argument as pandemic theater has yet produced for turning on your computer. And also for turning it off.

Russian Troll Farm
Live performances through Oct. 24; available on demand Oct. 25 through Nov. 2. twhartford.org

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