The Funny Side of “Russian Troll Farm” Extends Run at the Vineyard Theater

Producer Dori Berenstein says one aim is to use comedy and art to change hearts and minds. Actress Christine Lahti, who plays Ljuba, the cold-hearted efficient leader of the office with a traumatic past, says the play is both a reminder of what we went through—and a warning for the future. Its run has been extended through the second week of March.

| 15 Feb 2024 | 11:24

As the lights come up, we see office workers typing away, under a commanding photo of Vladimir Putin. Welcome to the Vineyard Theatre’s “Russian Troll Farm: A Workplace Comedy.” Penned by Sarah Gancher, the vantage point here is the other side: as in St. Petersburg, where, in fact, an internet company was attempting to interfere in our 2016 election. It happened once...Gancher–an Obie winning playwright—says her play came out of her confusion in 2016, over what she was often seeing on her internet feeds: mixed with anxiety about how Donald Trump was obviously being helped from afar in defeating Hillary Clinton.

“I noticed all these unrecognizable names,” she says, “talking like aliens and sometimes getting in virulent arguments. I even followed a few Troll accounts, and discovered this new kind of propaganda. Trolls spend their time making up characters, writing dialogue, triggering strong emotions. It’s weaponized storytelling.” And so, she decided to tell her own story. It had a highly viewed online production during the pandemic. Then, it enjoyed a production in Wisconsin and now, the Vineyard on W. 15th St., which has already extended it through at least the first week of March.

Producer Dori Berenstein is credited with believing in this project and getting it this far. “I felt a duty and responsibility to share this with as many people as possible,” she says. “It is such a profound and urgent message. We all need to be aware of how we’re being manipulated online, especially from foreign places. I really believe in the power of art to change hearts and minds.” Berenstein is hopeful some may come for other reasons, and then get the message.

One draw is actress Christine Lahti, well known for her award-winning TV (“Chicago Hope”) and film (“Running On Empty”) work. Here, she portrays Ljuba, a cold-hearted, efficient leader of the office: but her reasoning becomes much clearer after a very long monologue about her life. One that would apply, most likely, to others who ended up trolling from Russia.

“Ljuba's journey in this play is massive and complex and so compelling,” Lahti told me. “She is damaged and broken, but as a survivor has built a lifetime of armor around her heart.

“In her journey in the play, she has a breakdown/breakthrough that allows some cracks in that armor and gives her a second chance at love and mothering. I was very intrigued by the creative challenge it offered.”

The actress, married to television director Thomas Schlamme, and the mother of three, was last on a New York stage portraying feminist and Ms. magazine co-founder Gloria Steinem off-Broadway. “I always love coming back to the theatre,” she says. “It's where I started and it's where I find some of the most complex characters to bring to life.” The Steinem show, obviously, spoke of a specific cause and period in our history. Likewise, Lahti sees this play as a reminder—and warning. “I hope audiences will be very wary of all social media” she says. “That the thin line between truth and lies has become even thinner and that we all must be vigilant about seeking out the truth.” Lahti is very clear about her own political leanings and activism.

In fact, full disclosure, she performed, with James Naughton, at Symphony Space in a play I co-wrote, called “Don’t Blame Me, I Voted for Helen Gahagan Douglas.” (Helen being the former Broadway actress-turned congresswoman-turned U.S Senate candidate against Richard Nixon) Anyone who speaks the words of that woman, and Gloria Steinem, has a place in my heart. Even while trolling against another woman, named Hillary. She is supported in the top notch cast by Renata Friedman, Haskell King, John Lavelle and Hadi Tabbal. The production is directed by Darko Tresnijak

All this brings grateful—if cautious—reaction from the playwright, who says, yes, it takes place in an office and yes, it is considered a dark comedy. “But just like “The Office,” (the Carell TV series) this is not about paper and not about politics, per se. It’s about the people who worked every day to poison my feed—and yours.” She could not be prouder of this production, Gancher says. This one is not for the faint of heart, and let’s face it, not for the right-wing edges of these perilous times.

“It’s a shape-shifting wild ride,” the playwright warns. “But the play gets more and more timely, and my great wish is that it becomes completely irrelevant history.”

Michele Willens’ “Stage Right...Or Not” airs on Robinhoodradio.