With most plays and playwrights, you track story, character, plot. There’s a sense that while the source of the drama may have been the playwrights mind that’s not the setting. That’s not how it works with a Murray Mednick play.
With a Mednick play, you feel like you’re being invited into the playwright’s mind where the characters, the ideas, the arguments are swirling around and being obsessed over. It’s like one of those dreams you have when you’re grappling with a big question: not always clear but terribly vivid.
To put it differently, with most playwrights if you asked them how to get to the grocery store you’d get a set of directions: do this then do that, then something dramatic happens, then you get to the store. I have the sense that if you asked Murray Mednick how to get to the store, one of his characters would jump in and question the very nature of food then another would interject that since we’re all going to die what’s the point of eating when we could just have sex?
If you’re looking for a clear, simple plot - look elsewhere. If on the other hand you’re willing to get lost for two hours in Murray Mednick’s obsessions, his latest play “Mayakovsky and Stalin” is perfect for you.
While plot is a twisted notion in this play, it’s bookended by two suicides. The first, opening the play, is that of Stalin’s wife, Nadya. The last is the experimental poet and playwright Mayakovsky. Our milieu is Bolshevik Russia right before and right after the revolution. The connective tissue between these two suicides is Lili Brik - Mayakovsky’s lover and muse who, history tells us, five years after Mayakovsky’s death appealed to Stalin to resurrect the poet’s legacy. It worked and Stalin famously declared Mayakovsky “the best and most gifted poet of [the] Soviet epoch.”
While Lili provides the excuse for the two storylines and the suicides provide the structure - the play bounces back and forth between Stalin and Mayakovsky. It can be a bit dizzying trying to hold on to the through line so my advice is: let go and let Mednick’s words wash over you. The struggle on the simplest level is the passion of the dictator versus the struggle of the artist but on a deeper level it’s a play about the promise and terror of a revolutionary future. If you’re trying to change the status quo, in politics or in art, what are the costs? Once your reality doesn’t live up to your dream - what do you do?
The reason to spend two hours inside Mednick’s mind is the wonderful ensemble cast that tackle his muscular language beautifully. (While you might get lost in the philosophical arguments - they never do).
“Mayakovsky and Stalin” isn’t an easy play but if you enjoy chewing on big ideas, it’s perfect.
“Mayakovsky and Stalin” plays at the Lounge Theatre in Hollywood through August 19th.
For info on the show and to subscribe to the weekly KCRW theatre newsletter, check out kcrw.com/theatre.