Monday, April 16, 2007


At 8½ hours, this playwright ain't Russian

By Josh R
The questions prompted by Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia, the ambitious three-play cycle being performed in repertory at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater, extend beyond those of the philosophical bent being posed by the characters onstage. This is especially true for anyone attempting to write about it — exactly how does one go about summarizing an 8½ hour work of theater, so broad in scope of purpose and meaning as to all but defy any attempt at description?

For the obdurate critic, it’s a daunting proposition. If one had the time and the inclination, the assignment might entail drawing up an outline, mapping out the overall narrative arc and the journeys of the major characters in minute detail, then endeavoring to explain how it all relates to the playwright’s observations about the nature of revolution in all its permutations, both literal and figurative. Shew.

If I sound overawed by the prospect, I think many would concur that The Coast of Utopia is a work to inspire awe — and trepidation. Well in anticipation of its Broadway premiere, the intimidation factor surrounding Stoppard’s epic treatment of the lives and loves of revolutionary thinkers in 19th-century Russia was giving advance ticketholders night sweats. The panic reached its apotheosis when The New York Times (much to the chagrin of the people involved with the production) ran a list of publications prospective theatergoers ought to read before attempting to see the show — presumably to preserve any hope of understanding it. This recommended reading list, with citations ranging from the novels of Pushkin and Turgenev to long out-of-print collections of obscurely authored letters, conveyed the impression that a trip to the Beaumont represented less a night at the theater than a sort of winnowing-out process, the intellectual equivalent of Survivor. For those who were smart or well-studied enough to hang tough, the rewards would be manifold. For those who didn’t do their homework, the titles of the three installments, when recited in order — “Voyage,” “Shipwreck” and “Salvage” — had a ring of grim prophecy.

Of course, if the trilogy had been the work of say, Neil Simon, the appearance of a suggested reading list in the Times might not have produced nearly as much anxiety. Fairly or not, the name of Stoppard has always inspired an automatic sense of dread in certain quarters. Never the most user-friendly of playwrights to begin with, the term “genius” has often been used in reference to both the writer and his work — and not always in the spirit of a compliment. His critics accuse him of talking over the heads of his audiences; I, for one, will freely admit to never having been able to make heads or tails of Jumpers, one of his more inscrutable exercises in cerebral esoterica. Those who accuse his work of being emotionally inaccessible are given to say that he writes with his head, as opposed to his heart. To some extent (even though I don’t necessarily agree with that assessment), the reputation has been earned. Even with his best works — and the recent Broadway productions of The Invention of Love and The Real Thing stand as two of the highlights of my life’s theatergoing experience — there are moments when dramatic concision gets lost in a tangle of knotty verbiage, while considerations of character and plot take a back seat to the myriad of ideas floating in the ether.

The Coast of Utopia is not immune to some of these flaws, but it is not, as it detractors have suggested, dry, dull and dramatically inert. It’s talky, to be sure — often, too much so — but behind the intellectual discourse is something real and raw, a wellspring of human emotions both beautiful and terrible. When they bubble to the surface, the result is as arresting as anything to be seen on the stage in this or any season. A panoramic view of the tumult of European history, politics and thought, Stoppard’s most ambitious work to date is as miraculous as it is maddening — but it can never be accused of lacking in passion.

Just for the record, neither is it impossible to understand. As someone who did none of the required reading on the Times syllabus, I experienced no difficulty in following the action, although I made a deliberate decision early on not to try to assimilate every piece of revolutionary theory (featuring the ruminations of Marx, Kant, Hegel and a host of others) being trotted out on display. Be grateful for the fact that these revolutionaries led such colorful lives — beneath all the high-minded talk are the workings of a juicy, multigenerational soap opera.

Rather than tackling this three-headed hydra head-on, for the purposes of this writing it’s better to distill the plot down to the barest of essentials; a prolonged discussion of the various subplots, which are legion, would only breed confusion for the reader (and even more so for the writer.) The play charts the changing fortunes of an extended circle of 19th-century Russian revolutionaries — writers, philosophers, activists and agitators — over a span of 30 years. Their personal lives follow the same chaotic path as the politics of the Russian state, with optimism giving way to disillusionment as the idealism of youth is thwarted and confused by the capricious currents of history. The tragedy of these visionaries lies in the fact that, in spite of their best intentions, their vision got away from them — so much so as to leave them bewildered. A quixotic dream of Utopian Socialism is distorted by the tumult of constant upheaval and radical revisionism to the point that it eventually mutates into a harsher strain of Bolshevism (and ultimately, Communism.) These dreamers reach the coast of utopia, but never quite set foot on land.

The action moves from a bucolic county estate in the Russian countryside to the pressure-cooker of Moscow across the politically unstable landscape of 19th-century Europe, featuring an ever-rotating merry-go-round of more than 40 major and minor characters. Anchoring the trilogy is the writer Alexander Herzen (Brian F. O’Byrne), credited as being the father of Western socialism. Exiled from his homeland, he relocates to France and later Italy with his young family, continuing his advocacy for political reform. After the death of his wife, Natalie (Jennifer Ehle), he eventually establishes a Free Russian press based out of London, and ends his life in Switzerland, if not forgotten then widely discounted by the new breed of revolutionaries who rise up in his generation’s place. If O’Byrne, who has become one of Broadway’s most prolific leading men, came across as rather stiff and oratorical in the trilogy’s middle passage (he remains on the periphery of the action in the first play), by the time I saw him in “Shipwreck” several weeks later, he seemed to have relaxed nicely into the role.

Orbiting around Herzen is a galaxy of satellites — a motley collection of aristocrats, free-thinkers, lovers and rabble-rousers — and one would be hard-pressed to recall a starrier ensemble of actors than the one currently assembled at the Beaumont. It’s impossible to single out all of the 40-odd players who comprise this gallery of historical figures, although it should be mentioned that a number of them perform double or triple duty in multiple roles. Ethan Hawke hits the right notes of arrogance and petulance in a spry, funny turn as Michael Bakunin, the spoiled scion of privileged landed gentry who pursues his revolutionary interests with the brash moral certitude of an ego unchecked. Billy Crudup is virtually unrecognizable in his finely-tuned portrayal of the nebbishy journalist and critic Vissarion Belinsky, while Josh Hamilton finds subtle shades of regret and resignation in the poet and historian Nicolas Ogarev. Richard Easton is outstanding as the Bakunin patriarch, his self-satisfied complacency being slowly eroded by the harsh winds of change, and supplies moments of unbearable poignancy later on in his depiction of a dying Polish aristocrat in exile. Amy Irving is convincing enough as the fussy matriarch in “Voyage,” which makes her full-bodied, unabashedly confrontational sensuality as Maria Ogarev in “Shipwreck” all the more unexpected. Jason Butler Harner is a droll delight as the wry, bemused Turgenev, while David Harbour is particularly memorable as an enigmatic nihilist — a fine study of coiled aggression. Martha Plimpton does nicely by “Voyage’s” dutiful Varenka, who makes a sensible marriage and lives to regret it, but is an absolute revelation in the third play as the emotionally volatile Natasha, whose vivacious, impetuous nature hardens into a mass of vacillating feelings fueled by self-recrimination. As great as she was in the recent Shining City, is it in this role that she truly confirms her status as a stage actress of remarkable presence and charisma.

As impressive as everyone in the cast is, top acting honors must be conferred upon the luminous Ms. Ehle, who excels in three strikingly different roles. The tremulous delicacy that she brings to her performance in “Voyage” as the frail, gentle Liubuv, who finds bittersweet if fleeting happiness in the blush of first romance, exists in stark contrast to the firm-minded pragmatism of “Salvage’s” Malwida, the perspicacious German governess who exerts a steadying influence on the children of the Herzen household while keeping a wary eye fixed on the reckless behavior of its elders. It is in “Shipwreck,” however, that the actress is most prominently featured, and where she makes her most indelible impression. Far from the square-shouldered, sensible spinster of Part 3, or the pale, shy ingenue of Part I, Natalie Herzen is a rose in full bloom, a ravishing, vibrant romantic heroine who follows her heart into uncharted territory even as the ground beneath her feet begins to give way. The actress creates a captivating study in contradictions; winsome yet seductive, incisive yet wrong-headed, alternately reflective and impulsive, she provides the trilogy with its richest characterization, and its most lyrical.

As evidenced by her brilliant, Tony-winning turn in The Real Thing, Ehle has an instinctive grasp of the nuances of Stoppard’s language; her delivery is so natural and assured that it doesn’t even sound scripted, but rather something being thought up freshly on the spot. This is something I haven’t observed with any other actor in a Stoppard play, or really with many stage actors in general (stage acting seemingly necessitates a certain degree of staginess). The actress’s proficiency with dialogue is made all the more remarkable by its artlessness; although her physical transformation from role to role is quite stunning, her command of the language allows her to thoroughly embody her characters to a point where the effort is no longer visible.

The production itself is top-notch. Director Jack O’Brien corrals the action with a remarkably assured hand, bringing cohesion and succinctness to an occasionally unwieldy text, while Bob Crowley and Scott Pask’s ingenious scenic designs, Brian MacDevitt’s impressionistic lighting and Catherine Zuber’s sumptuous costumes create a resplendent visual tapestry which is stunning to behold. During the intermission of another show I attended this past week, I overheard three other theater patrons describing The Coast of Utopia as a great big, thundering bore. Truth be told, there are moments when it stalls and one’s focus is given to wander —
I have a feeling that “Shipwreck,” by my estimation the weakest of the three plays, would be a rather interminable affair if not for the invaluable contribution of Ms. Ehle, who is fortuitously placed as the center of its action. Stoppard is fond of big ideas and, perhaps in an effort to give his audiences a better chance of latching onto them, stresses his points through repetition. This is not an approach that will resonate with everyone — a few seats over from where I was sitting during “Shipwreck,” Martha Stewart could be observed snoozing away on the aisle (she woke up at intermission, talked on her cell for a bit, then went right back to sleep during the second act). She’s a busy lady; she needs to take her rest where she can get it. For everyone else, staying awake through the entire 8½ hour marathon — while admittedly more taxing than the average theatergoing experience — is something to be heartily recommended.

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The only Stoppard play I saw on Broadway was Arcadia, which I felt was interesting and well acted, but if you asked me today what it was about, I couldn't tell you a thing. The details were so dense, its story has evaporated in my mind. Really, aside from being my first exposure to Billy Crudup, the only other thing I vividly recall is that I sat in the Vivian Beaumont behind the then-still living Garson Kanin and Marian Seldes.
Arcadia is not one my favorites, although there are things about it that I like. I think it's one the plays where plot and characterization take a back seat to the ideas - interesting yes, but more so from a reading standpoint than a viewing one, since intellectual complexity doesn't always make for the most compelling theater. Sometimes this is the case with Utopia, most of the time not. It's not a problem in The Real Thing - which I consider Stoppard's best - at all.
Josh R, I am no fan of Stoppard but I agree with you about how good The Real Thing is. And sue me, but I really enjoyed Shakespeare in Love.

I can't imagine spending 8-1/2 hours watching a play about 19th century Russians or even 20th Century-Fox. (Yeah, I put that hyphen back in the studio's name!) While I'm sure I'd admire the stamina and memory of the cast, I'd probably wind up falling asleep next to the one Martha Stewart product they don't sell at Kmart.

Martha Stewart: I like to catch my z's by sprinkling a little potpourri on my clothing and going to see an 8-1/2 hour play. I can use the Playbill to make nice origami setpieces to surround my chair with. Sleep. It's a good thing.

At least she wasn't snoring.
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