“The Assassination of Leon Trotsky: A Comedy”: What??

File this under the rubric “Is Nothing Sacred?” An anything-goes irreverence animates playwright Peter Lefcourt and the world premiere of his anti-Marxist madcap mishmash The Assassination of Leon Trotsky: A Comedy.

In this play within a play within a play, Trotsky arrives in Coyoacán, near Mexico City, where the ex-Bolshevik will live in exile with his wife Natalia. Dialogue alludes to the faction fight between Trotsky and his arch-nemesis, Josef Stalin, who, after Lenin’s death in 1924, edged his rival out and (in Trotskyist parlance) established a bureaucratic dictatorship in a deformed workers state (that had some attributes of socialism).

The great painters Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo interceded on the stateless Trotskys’ behalf and arranged for them to find asylum in Mexico, which in 1937 under President Lázaro Cárdenas had a sort of New Deal type government.

More ahistorical than hysterical (not to mention heretical), the play’s premise provides plenty of fertile material, as the bohemian Diego and Frida welcome the Trotskys to her Casa Azul. Emmy Award-winning writer Lefcourt merely uses actual annals for a springboard to the derring-do of his feverish imagination. Facts, schmacts, in two acts!

All of the historical figures are caricatured, perhaps Diego (Joe J. Garcia) above all. Rivera here is a trigger-happy buffoon who shoots first and asks questions later. How will Chicanos and Mexicans react to their brilliant muralist being played strictly for laughs as a clown? The author is obviously far more concerned with his characters’ sex lives than, say, with a little thing like Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution (which goes unmentioned).

I actually enjoyed the first act. The conceit is that a troupe of actors are putting on a play about Trotsky in Mexico, and they in turn mirror that drama’s revolutionary subject matter by rebelling against an overbearing playwright (Greyson Lewis, who, in a droll bit of casting, also plays Trotsky’s assassin). As part of their revolt, the play within a play’s actors “ad lib” lines, mainly by reciting dialogue from other plays. The first time this happens, it’s imaginative, even ingenious. But in Act II, as the actors continue to use the same theatrical device, the charm wore off, like a guest who has overstayed his welcome.

Lefcourt and his director, Terri Hanauer, may be amusing themselves with this pastiche parody. But seriously, folks, consider the fact that in just the past month or so we witnessed mass uprisings in Turkey and Brazil, not to mention what are reportedly the largest protests in human history in Egypt. Audiences would be far better served by a play that took a sober look at the ideal of and prospects for world revolution (certainly, in Marxist parlance, “the objective conditions exist”) than by one mocking it and those who fought for freedom.

Finally, a word about the propriety (does this word exist in Mr. Lefcourt’s lexicon?) of making fun of the murder of any human being, let alone one as significant as Trotsky. Making light of an ice pick or modified alpenstock piercing a human skull is no laughing matter. There is another comic treatment of Trotsky’s assassination, the 1966 British film Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment, which portrays poor Trotsky’s elimination with sly comic effect. So it can be done – but it depends upon how and to what purpose.

To be fair, many in the audience seemed entertained by this spectacle. The less one knows about the actual personages depicted, the more one is likely to enjoy this slapstick bagatelle. The play makes no mention that Trotsky was eliminated by a Stalin agent in 1940, at the height of the Hitler-Stalin pact, when Berlin and Moscow had a non-aggression treaty that for the most part sidelined worldwide Communist parties from the anti-fascist struggle. In many ways Lefcourt had far more interesting material to explore, but passed it by for a frothy entertainment.

Lefcourt’s cream pie in the face of the old Bolshevik is Trotsky’s second assassination. To quote Marx’s 1852 The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, “First time tragedy, second time farce.”

If you must: The Assassination of Leon Trotsky: A Comedy plays Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays 3 pm through July 28 at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, CA. For more info: (323) 960-7735; www.plays411.com/trotsky.

Photo: The cast of The Assassination of Leon Trotsky: A Comedy: left to right, Christopher Rivas, Ashley Platz, Joe J. Garcia, Murielle Zuker, Holly Hawkins, Greyson Lewis and Joel Swetow. Photo by Ed Krieger.


Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Film historian and critic Ed Rampell was named after CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow because of his TV exposes of Sen. Joe McCarthy. Rampell majored in cinema at New York's Hunter College. After graduating, he lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, where he reported on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific movement for "20/20," Reuters, AP, Radio Australia, Newsweek, etc. He went on to co-write "The Finger" column for New Times L.A. and has written for many other publications, including Variety, Mother Jones, The Nation, Islands, L.A. Times, L.A. Daily News, Written By, The Progressive, The Guardian, The Financial Times, and AlterNet.

Rampell appears in the 2005 Australian documentary "Hula Girls, Imagining Paradise." He co-authored two books on Pacific Island politics, as well as two film histories: "Made In Paradise, Hollywood's Films of Hawaii and the South Seas" and "Pearl Harbor in the Movies." Rampell is the author of "Progressive Hollywood, A People's Film History of the United States." He is a co-founder of the James Agee Cinema Circle and one of L.A.'s most prolific film/theatre/opera reviewers.