The unit set for Nights at the Stray Dog Café (11m with 6 playing more than one role, 4w) is a cellar with a narrow flight of stairs leading up right, tables and chairs, a small puppet theatre on a table left, and a slightly raised inner stage. Actors move on from the shadows and remain on until taken out by the Skeleton Clowns. As the play begins we hear the sounds of sirens and bombs and lights come up on a shadowy cellar with round wooden tables and chairs and mirrors scattered about. Boris and Anna stagger down the stairs and enter the cellar through a low doorway. Anna, disoriented, complains about strangers wandering in and out of her flat. Boris lights a lantern and says that there are birds painted on the walls. Anna recognizes the place as the Stray Dog Café that has been closed since WW1. She says the best times of her life were at the Café and, after Boris goes back up the stairs, she says she returns to the former times as she falls asleep.
We hear a piano offstage softly playing Couperin’s “Les Barricades Mysterieuses” as Tamara, a prima ballerina, enters from the upstage shadows and dances on the stage unseen by Anna. Mandelstam comes on and sits at the table with Anna as others—Mayakovsky, Olga, Brik, his wife Lily, Blok and wife Lyubov, Bely, Knyazev, and Khlebnikov with an accordion, enter and set up the chairs and tables. Mayakovsky sings a song as Khlebnikov accompanies on the accordion, with everyone except Anna joining in on the final chorus. Mayakovsky steps up on the little stage and says he is going to direct the “orgy” since Meyerhold and Stanislavsky are not there. The cast, except for Anna, sing the verse and chorus of the song again and the stage direction states that we are in the Stray Dog as it might have been in 1913 with Anna naming six of the onstage characters.
Olga tells Anna that Gumilyov has been flirting with her and Mayakovsky tells the audience that he is the self-appointed master of ceremonies, introducing several poets, particularly the “ravishingly beautiful and mysterious” Anna Akhmatova who will be acting out a scene with Gumilyov. She tells Gumilyov she cannot marry him because she is not a virgin. Gumilyov says he forgives her but she says she doesn’t love him. Brik interrupts, saying that he doesn’t believe the scene and Olga says it needs puppets and perhaps Raspsutin’s penis. Gumilyov drinks poison, vomits into a bucket that Khlebnikov provides and says the year is 1910. Knyazev says it’s 1913, Brik says it’s 1930, and Khlebnikov says it’s 1922 and he’ll be dead soon. Mandelstam tells us that in the Stray Dog Café all times and places coexist.
Lyubov, Blok’s wife, auditions for Meyerhold and Bely tells Blok that he is in love with his wife. Bely tries to get Lyubov to run away with him but she leaves him. Mayakovsky and Mandelstam talk about poetry, tradition, and the future. Mayakovsky supports the Revolution that will change everything. Lily, Brik’s wife, tells Mayakovsky that she thought he was a hooligan but when he recited his poems both she and her husband fell in love with him and she and Brik re-enact the scene in which she comes home and tells her husband that she has been with Mayakovsky, “fucking him most of the night.” Brik thinks that having Mayakovsky live with them is an excellent idea since he plans to publish Mayakovsky’s poems. Lily explains her behavior to Tamara and Olga. Khlebnikov plays “Dark Eyes” on the accordion and the actors sing and dance.
Knyazev tells Olga, who is putting clothes on a puppet, that he loves her. She says she doesn’t care and asks Blok if he is having trouble with his wife. Olga kisses him and leads him off into the shadows as the others sing.
Mayakovsky asks Lily to tell him about her wedding night but then tells her to stop. She kisses him and goes as Meyerhold tells Mayakovsky that the mask is the face.
Anna and Gumilyov talk about his infidelities which he says are his duty to her because the more women he sleeps with the more poems he writes. He leaves and she tells Knyazev that Blok is sleeping with Olga, that the person we think we love is never the person they seem to be. It’s all lies and he must play the game or die.
Doing a drum roll as he speaks, Mayakovsky introduces Stanislavsky. Mayakovsky and Anna tell him that Chekhov’s plays are garbage, and Meyerhold says he can’t stand working with him, that theatre should be a kind of “beautifully controlled chaos. Like the music hall and the circus.” Stanislavsky says he’ll be at the theatre, “dong real plays,” but a large Bear runs up behind him and growls ferociously before chasing him all over the stage and off. Meyerhold shouts after him that the only way to get to the truth is to admit we’re telling lies.
We hear a gunshot as Anna and Blok are talking and Mandelstam says they have begun shooting the poets and a storm is coming. Olga enters telling the others that Knyazev shot himself in the head outside her door but although it made a terrible mess it has inspired her to create a puppet show. With a boy puppet on one hand and a girl puppet on the other, Olga announces the show called “The Love Suicide of Nevsky Prospect.” She does the voice of the boy puppet saying he loves the girl puppet and giving her a flower. The voice of the girl puppet says she is going to fornicate with an old poet as she grabs a skeleton puppet “and has violent sex with it.” The boy puppet gets a toy gun and shoots himself in the head as Mayakovsky bangs on the drum to simulate the shot and the gun squirts cranberry juice on the puppet stage wallpaper. The girl puppet’s voice says that men are so silly to think they can own a person. She puts the flower on the boy puppet and dances and sings. When Anna rebukes her Olga says she played the game and he died. Mayakovsky bangs on his drum and we hear the sound of shooting as the Bear runs in and removes his head. It is Khlebnikov who announces that the Revolution has begun. Mayakovsky sings “The Internationale” and is joined by Brik, Lily, and Meyerhold, and then the rest of the cast except Anna and Mandelstam. As the song concludes, the lights go to black and we hear three drum beats in the darkness, ending the act.
Lights come up as Khlebnikov appears playing the accordion version of “Kalinka” as the others enter. Mayakovsky sings about killing the Tsar’s children and is joined by everyone except Anna and Mandelstam. Mayakovsky says it’s a glorious time in Mother Russia as everything old must be destroyed. Meyerhold says that we don’t need authors, that concept is all. Anna asks Lily if she isn’t bothered by Brik spending so much time with the Secret Police. Lily says good people have nothing to fear from them and Mandelstam warns Mayakovsky that eventually they will come for him and Meyerhold. The First Skeleton Clown enters with a skeleton mask and a towel on his shoulder like a waiter, bringing Mayakovsky a bowl of soup. Lily, Tamara, Olga, and Lybov stretch and warm up to dance as all but Anna and Mandelstam sing a verse of “Kalinka.”
We hear the Couperin again as the four women dance. Blok says that the world is not made of symbols, that if you take away the stage sets all you have is an empty theatre. There is nothing behind what we see. Mandelstam points out that what we see is the dance and it is very beautiful. Lyubov tells Blok that he is in love with somebody he made up in his head and she is somebody else. If she is nobody, she says, she belongs in the theatre where people who are nobody go to generate the illusion that they’re somebody. Blok and Bely argue and Blok says the Stray Dog Café is the whole world reflected in fragments of dark, broken mirrors where they will all die waiting for the end of the world. He staggers and goes out, helped by the First Skeleton Clown.
Lily comes over to Mayakovsky who is pounding on his drum and tells him that she wants to be as free from rules as he is. Mandelstam, Anna, and Bely join the conversation and, when Mayakovsky says that everyone is a Romanian orchestra, Anna says she wants to believe that God is looking after everybody. Mandelstam offers to shake hands with Mayakovsky but he says he is afraid of germs. Mandelstam and Brik warn Gumilyov about making sarcastic comments concerning the authorities. Lyubov enters in tears saying that Blok is dead. Bely says that now she can marry him but she tells him to go away.
We hear the sound of a bell tolling and Olga says that the dead always return to the Stray Dog Café. Anna says that all men are insane but that she creates her own unhappiness. Gumilyov says she will outlive “all these dumb Soviet bastards,” and as he and Anna talk the First and Second Skeleton Clowns appear on opposite sides to the stage looking at him. They put their hands on his shoulders and whisper to him. He says he is late for an appointment with the Secret Police but will be back soon. He goes out with the two Skeleton Clowns and, after a pause, we hear the loud sound of a gunshot.
As Mandelstam speaks about hope and Pandora’s box, Olga puts her puppets away and the First and Second Skeleton Clowns push out a coffin, put Khlebnikov in it, and close the lid. Anna tells Olga that she had tried to feel nothing but has failed. Anna asks her why she sleeps with everybody and Olga says she doesn’t know and ask Anna if she has thought of suicide. Anna says she has and thinks that they are like chess pieces being played by someone on a chessboard that is a labyrinth that leads to a ditch full of blood. Olga says she is going to Paris and asks Anna to go with her but Anna says she has to stay.
Brik and Lily talk about their open marriage. Brik says what he loves most is working with the Secret Police as they torture people. When she asks him what he wants he has her swear never to leave him.
Bely, Mayakovsky, Mandelstam, and Anna speak of suicide and Anna warns Mayakovsky about the Briks and the Secret Police. Lily joins them but Tamara pulls Anna away on the pretext of dancing with her and warns her about saying anything in front of Lily. Lily tells Mayakovsky that he is selfish, vain, and dishonest, and he says he only sleeps with other people because she won’t leave her husband for him. Lily says she is going to Berlin with Brik and moves into the shadows. Mayakovsky drinks as Mandelstam tells him he is no longer useful to the party. Brik enters and Mandelstam goes off. Brik and Mayakovsky talk about friendship and duty to the party. Brik tells him he has made some serious errors in judgement that will have consequences. The First and Second Skeleton Clowns appear and look downstage at Mayakovsky. They sing a lyric to the tune of “The Internationale” as they take him off into the shadows. Brik says that his dearest friend, Mayakovsky, shot himself in the head. We hear the sound of a loud gunshot and the Third Skeleton Clown gives Brik a folded piece of paper and leaves. Brik reads from the paper that Stalin has designated Mayakovsky “the great poet of the revolution and of the Soviet state.” Brik says Mayakovsky would have been very pleased.
Bely asks Lyubov why she keeps acting and warns her that Meyerhold is under investigation. He asks her why she avoids him and she tells him she never loved him and never will because he loves her. She leaves as Mandelstam tells Anna that Bely had a stroke trying to tear out the introduction to his memoirs that the authorities had inserted describing his writing as worthless hackwork. Bely says that the secret behind everything is that nothing means anything, puts on his hat, and moves upstage to where the Second Skeleton Clown is waiting for him. They move into the shadows.
Mandelstam talks to Anna about living in a system that selects for stupidity and mediocrity, weeding out the truth tellers, driving them mad, and killing them. As he speaks, the First, Second, and Third Skeleton Clowns begin to converge on him. Anna says that we are taken away and killed for nothing. The Skeleton Clowns take Mandelstam upstage into the shadows but he pauses to tell a joke about God cleaning up after the elephants at a circus because he doesn’t want to give up show business.
Stanislavsky wants Meyerhold, whose theatre has been taken from him, to help run Stanislavsky’s theatre. As Stanislavsky walks upstage he is escorted into the upstage shadows by the Fourth and Fifth Skeleton Clowns as the First and Second Skeleton Clowns pull Meyerhold to a table that is turned over by the Third Skeleton Clown, and the Fourth and Fifth Skeleton Clowns beat Meyerhold with canes. As he screams, Brik sits at a table down right in a little circle of light and speaks of torture and almost seeing the face of God when he takes off his mask. He describes how Meyerhold was beaten and had boiling water poured over him as the Second and Third Skeleton Clowns drag Meyerhold to a center stage chair placed by the First Skeleton Clown. He is in a circle of light surrounded by darkness. Brik asks questions and the Third Skeleton Clown uses his cane like a cattle prod on Meyerhold’s neck. Brik tells Meyerhold his wife has been murdered and as Brik continues to ask questions the Skeleton Clowns touch Meyerhold’s body with their prods and we hear an electric buzzing sound as he screams. Brik tells the Clowns to take him out and kill him, and they drag him screaming into the upstage darkness, after which we hear the sound of a loud gunshot.
The First and Fifth Skeleton Clowns put Anna in the chair center stage. Brik questions Anna about her loves and sexual partners. Anna says she knows who he is and that she has betrayed all those she loved by writing about them. She will keep doing it until she dies so he might as well shoot her like everybody else. Brik says she will not be killed today, but perhaps tomorrow. As he talks about his recurrent nightmare, we hear the sound of wind and he walks upstage to the five waiting Clowns. They carry him off face down into the darkness. Anna says that she is left alone to tell the tale. “Remember the one who loved you,” she says. “There is nothing else.” We hear the sound of the Couperin again and Tamara asks Anna to dance, taking her by the hand, and together they dance until Tamara fades into the shadows and disappears, leaving Anna to dance alone. We hear the sound of a door opening as the music fades and Boris asks if she is all right, saying that he was accosted by a gang of hooligans and spend most of the night convincing them who he was. He asks if she has been alone and she says somebody was here but they’re all gone now. He says it is dawn and he will take her home. “I am home,” she says. He helps her up the stairs and as the lights fade we hear the others singing the song they sang at the beginning.