Theater

Lenin's Embalmers Is Dead on Arrival at Theatre Artists Studio

I have seen Theatre Artists Studio's Lenin's Embalmers, and, oh, the wisecracks I could make about dead comedies and performances by walking corpses.

I'll refrain. But I will say this: I can't imagine who could make this tedious black comedy shine. At just under two hours, it's a full 90 minutes too long. No matter how talented you are, it's tough to make jokes about the gulag funny — something playwright Vern Thiessen has proved in a stuffy absurdist comedy directed here by Debra Rich Gettleman and Tom Noga.

Thiessen's play is based on a true story and inspired by the book of the same name by Ilya Zbarsky and Samuel Hutchinson and translated by Barbara Bray. Lenin's Embalmers offers up Boris Zbarsky and Vladimir Vorobiov, two scientists engaged by something called the Committee for Immortalization to embalm Vladimir Lenin after his death in 1924. The embalming, which took several months, commenced nearly eight weeks after the death of the leader of the World Proletariat. So the scientists had first to restore the body (which remains on view in Moscow to this day) to a lifelike appearance before preserving it. The pair became famous for their weird talents and, because Stalin hated people more popular than himself, they were eventually murdered.

Hilarious, right?

Yuks at the expense of the darkest days of the Soviet Union are hard to pull off, and Thiessen's brittle comedy — full of blackouts and anti-Semitic punch lines — falls flat, despite the shenanigans of eight actors and two (two!) talented directors. Making this particular moment in time into an entertainment proved too much for even the fine comic timing of Radford Mallon and Robert Bledsoe (Vorobiov and Stalin, respectively), who receive mostly inadequate support from a half-dozen ensemble players.

There are moments. Lenin's corpse rises occasionally from its slab to tell a joke (Three Russians are imprisoned in the gulag. The first one asks, "What are you in for?" The second replies, "I called Zbarsky a revolutionary." "That's funny," the first one says. "I called Zbarsky a counterrevolutionary." "That's funny," the third one says. "I am Zbarsky."); the actual embalming is depicted as a Keystone Cops sequence with silly silent-movie music cranking in the background; all the women in the play are named Nadia.

But even these dubious high points were met with silence from the stunned full-house audience last Friday. For me, the comic high point came at the end of Act One, which ended with no response from those of us who'd just witnessed it. From the lobby behind us came the sound of impatient clapping from one of the directors, cuing us that we'd made it halfway through this turgid comedy and should clap, dammit. And like good little prisoners, we complied.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela