The play is sent in Moldavanka, Odessa's Jewish Quarter in 1913. The plot revolves around the volatile relationship between neighborhood mob boss Benya Krik and his philandering, alcoholic father Mendel Krik.
As the curtain rises, the Krik family awaits the arrival of Bobrinets, a wealthy suitor who wishes to marry Dvoira Krik. Although his daughter is already considered an old maid, Mendel Krik refuses to give her a dowry and insults Bobrinets, who leaves in a huff. Later, a weeping Nekhama Krik reminds her husband that the Jewish elders are about to bar him from the synagogue. However, Mendel mocks her as she laments having no grandchildren.
Later, Mendel drinks up his family's money at the local saloon and begins an extramarital affair with Marusia Kholodenko, a 20 year-old Gentile. Despite their Russian Orthodox faith, the Kholodenko family is ecstatic to have a new source of money.
Enraged by rumors that their father is about to disinherit them and elope to Bessarabia with Marusia, Benya and Lvovka Krik attack their father. Although Lvovka is severely beaten, Benya batters his father to a pulp and forbids him from leaving the house or Nekhama.
In the aftermath, Benya and Lvovka arrange to Dvoira to receive a dowry to marry Bobrinets. They also pay for an abortion for the pregnant Marusia. At a party to celebrate Dvoira's engagement, Rabbi Ben Zkharia declares that "everything is as it should be" and proposes a toast to the sons of Mendel Krik.
According to Nathalie Babel Brown,
"Sunset premiered at the Baku Worker's Theatre on October 23, 1927 and played in Odessa, Kiev, and the celebrated Moscow Art Theatre. THe reviews, however, were mixed. Some critics praised the play's 'powerful anti-bourgeois stance and its interesting 'fathers and sons' theme. But in Moscow, particularly, critics felt that the play's attitude toward the bourgeousie was contradictory and weak. Sunset closed, and was dropped from the repertoire of the Moscow Art Theatre.
However, Sunset continued to have many admirers. In a 1928 letter to his White emigre father, Boris Pasternak wrote, "Yesterday, I read Sunset, a play by Babel, and almost for the first time in my life I found that Jewry, as an ethnic fact, was a phenomenon of positive, unproblematic importance and power... I should like you to read this remarkable play..."
According to Babel's common law wife Antonina Pirozhkova, filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein was also an admirer of Sunset and often compared it to the writings of Émile Zola for, "illuminating capitalist relationships through the experience of a single family." Eisenstein was also quite critical of the Moscow Art Theatre, "for its weak staging of the play, particularly for failing to convey to the audience every single word of its unually terse text."
- Mendel Krik: "Break my back, Nekhama! Pour Jewish soup in my veins!"
- Benya Krik: "This is my idea: A Jew no longer in the prime of life, a Jew who used to go about naked, barefoot, and filthy like a convict on Sakhalin Island! And now, thank God, he's getting up there in years, it is time to put an end to this life sentence of hard labor -- it is time to turn the Sabbath into Sabbath.
- Rabbi Ben Zkharia: "God bathes in red water in Heaven. Why red, why not white, because red is merrier than white."
- Rabbi Ben Zkharia: "Jews! Day is day, and night is night. Day drenches us with the sweat of our toil, but night offers its fans of Divine coolness. Joshua, the son of Nun, who stopped the sun, was nothing but a crazed fool! ...And here is Mendel Krik, a member of our synagogue, who has turned out to be no cleverer than Joshua, son of Nun. He wanted to warm himself in the sun all his life, all his life he wanted to stand where he stood at midday. But God has policemen on every corner, and Mendel Krik has sons in his house. The policemen come and see to it that things are as they should be. Day is day, and night is night. Jews! Everything is as it should be! Let's down a glass of vodka!"
- The Complete Works of Isaac Babel, edited by Nathalie Babel Brown, 2002.
- The Complete Works of Isaac Babel, pages 753-754.
- Boris Pasternak: Family Correspondence, 1921-1960, translated by Nicholas Pasternak Slater. Hoover Press, 2011, page 107.
- At His Side, page 83.
- The Complete Works of Isaac Babel, page 771
- The Complete Works of Isaac Babel, page 792.
- The Complete Works of Isaac Babel, page 796.
- The Complete Works of Isaac Babel, pages 798-799.