nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
March 11, 2010
The miracle of Lenin's Embalmers, a dark comedy by Vern Thiessen, is that it captures the essence of the Russian Revolution without preaching ideology. Instead, the clever script, based on Ilya Zbarsky and Samuel Hutchinson's book of the same name, focuses on two vastly different scientists thrown together under the Stalinist regime to preserve Lenin's body after his death in 1924. The superb cast, pitch-perfect direction, and creative design teams share an ensemble's focus. The result is a satisfying piece of theatre built on ironic humor of a distinctly Russian nature.
The play begins in 1924, with Lenin giving his devoted wife Nadia explicit instructions: no grave or monument after he dies. This is reason enough for Stalin subsequently to order him preserved forever to keep the revolution alive. Vladimir Vorobiov, a serious scientist teaching in the provinces with the help of a devoted student named Nadia, and Boris Zbarsky, a largely unsuccessful scientist living in poverty with his nagging wife named (once again) Nadia, are recruited by Krasin, Stalin's lackey, for the job. Of course, there is no choice. If they don't take the job, they will be killed. If they do and they fail, again, they will be killed. The script's humor and lively pace keep historic gloom and doom at arm's length.
William Carden's direction stands out in so many ways. He introduces the cast at the outset with appealing precision as they slide props in geometric fashion, revealing the enormous flexibility of Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams's simple set. Screens make it easy to identify where the action is, jumping from Moscow to the provinces and back to Moscow in no time. Thoughtful routines, such as one employing fine vodka, are funny, providing threads of continuity. They also highlight the passing of time—at first it is easy to buy influence and less so later on. Carden makes remarkable dramatic use of a prolonged scene without dialogue. By generously employing Shane Rettig's original music and sound, he builds the kind of suspense that is generally reserved for movies.
Playwright Thiessen develops distinct characters as they face their dire predicaments, and it is usually with a good dose of black humor. It is a stroke of imaginative fun to name all the women Nadia and Polly Lee plays them all with verve. Thiessen's overlapping dialogue pushes the play forward. His jokes identify the Russian soul and tie the play together in an unpredictable fashion.
Peter Maloney, as Lenin, anchors the production with his droll delivery and strong presence. He kicks off the performance with a joke that serves as a metaphor for the cruelty under Stalin, and he pops up unexpectedly—and delightfully—throughout the play to remind the Russian people that, against his wishes, he is still very much alive. As Stalin, Richmond Hoxie conveys volumes in a mere look. The two scientists, Boris and Vlad, are played with competitive counterpoint by Scott Sowers and Zach Grenier respectively. Sowers shows the many faces of an opportunist. He is unaccommodating and unsympathetic to his whiny wife, and alternately charming and self-serving when politically expedient. Given that Lenin will have to be re-embalmed every six months to prevent decomposition, he sees this new opportunity as a job for life. Vlad, on the other hand, recognizes the stakes and knows that it is he who will have to solve the preservation problem ("Why do I feel I have a gun to my head?"). Grenier gives Vlad the intellectual heft and solemnity needed for the rifts that must erupt between the two men. In one entertaining scene, they come to physical blows on top of Lenin's body. All of the characters play the odds in this difficult political climate, but no one plays it with more submissive resignation than James Murtaugh as Stalin's gofer, Krasin. Lenin's Embalmers picks up unusual potency when Krasin realizes that, despite his loyalty, he is no luckier than the rest. Steven Boyer and Michael Louis Wells give crisp performances as agents, with Wells doubling in a brief appearance as Trotsky.
Chris Dallos designed effective lighting. Suzanne Chesney created period-appropriate costumes, with a well-starched, be-medaled uniform for Stalin. Shane Rettig's sound deserves extra kudos. He creates worlds for the cast that evoke very specific times and places that are eerie and believable.
Lenin's Embalmers is an innovative play that is performed with polish. I highly recommend it.