Theater archives

Playing Politics In Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers and Lenin’s Embalmers


Karl Marx famously claimed that world-historic facts appear twice—”the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” Marx knew plenty about history, but little about theater. Human events are far too messy to offer (the first time or the second) such ready-made plot and structure. To become dramatic, history needs careful shaping. Neither the creators of Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers, nor Vern Thiessen, the playwright of Lenin’s Embalmers, quite manage to smooth factual narrative into compelling theatrical form.

Top Secret‘s smartly condensed story takes place over a few days in 1971. After an injunction prevents The New York Times from printing any more disclosures from the Pentagon Papers—a dossier relating to the war in Vietnam leaked by think-tank staffer Daniel Ellsberg—The Washington Post senses a scoop. Post editor Ben Bradlee (Peter Strauss) and publisher Katherine Graham (Kathryn Meisle) must decide whether or not to publish their own stories based on the documents. After they, too, receive an injunction, they must go to court to defend that decision.

Co-authors Geoffrey Cowan (a former Village Voice columnist) and Leroy Aarons, who died in 2004, are formidable journalists, but only adequate playwrights. Plenty of notable personages stroll across New York Theatre Workshop’s stage—Nixon, Kissinger, etc.—but we never come to know them as more than caricatures, despite the excellence of much of the cast. The bouts of direct narration, supplied by the charming Meisle, offer further reminders that this isn’t quite a stage play, as does John Rubinstein’s direction. The piece originally hails from L.A. Theatre Works, a company devoted to radio plays. True to that form, Rubinstein has the actors stand before a line of microphones with scripts in hand, occasionally encouraging a bit of awkward mime. Presented as a live radio taping, as in the play’s 1990 debut, recorded for NPR, this might be bracing stuff. But as a production for the stage alone, it’s deficient. And peculiar. Yet if it doesn’t succeed as theater, Top Secret nevertheless functions as a persuasive cri de coeur for a style of journalism increasingly threatened with obsolescence.

Since Lenin’s Embalmers is set in Communist-era Russia, it seems appropriate that its author, Vern Thiessen, has taken Marx’s dictum to heart. But he muddles it. In Thiessen’s effort to dramatize the history of the men who have perpetually pickled Lenin’s corpse, he attempts both tragedy and farce. The result is rather manic and jumbled, with actors racing from one groaner to the next, all the while trying to imbue the material with a sense of weight and import.

On Lenin’s death, Stalin and his advisers arrange for two Jewish chemists (Scott Sowers and Zach Grenier) to achieve a postmortem feat, the eternal preservation of the leader’s body. Though they succeed (an event staged by director William Carden as an embalming dream ballet), rivalry, addiction, and the depredations of a totalitarian state undo them. Of course, owing to Thiessen’s tonal vagaries and the silliness of much of the script, their mutual ruin isn’t nearly as distressing as the production intends. Late in the play, Lenin recites a famous quotation. “Sometimes,” he says, “history needs a push.” And sometimes it needs a dramaturg.