Directed By: Jack O’Brien Starring Billy Crudup, Richard Easton, Jennifer Ehle, Josh Hamilton, David Harbour, Jason Butler Harner, Ethan Hawke, Amy Irving, Brian F. O’Byrne, and Martha PlimptonVivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center
I approached the plays as theater and skipped the homework yet I was absorbed by the sweep of Stoppard’s sweeping drama and the way he makes the Russian intellectuals into hot-blooded and vibrant theatrical beings; the amazing stagecraft and unforgettable images created by set designers Bob Crowley and Scott Pask; and the distinctive and dynamic performances that stage wizard Jack O’Brien elicits from the awesome, A-list cast of 44 (who play more than 70 roles) who all committed themselves to the grueling rehearsal and performance schedules for six months. Stoppard’s intellectuals are equally passionate about the revolutionary ideals they espouse as they are about their wives and mistresses. Their affairs and family tragedies are as juicy as any TV soap opera.Stoppard traces the lives of a group of six friends at the University of Moscow, who after witnessing the execution and exile of the idealistic Decembrists 1825, become radicals, political theorists (the “intelligentsia” as they are dubbed) and writers who philosophize and agitate for a new Russia one without the slavery of serfs and one with an indigenous literature and culture, not borrowed from the French or the German. Each of the plays opens with the astonishing image of Herzen seated on a chair that swirls downward through an ocean of water and disappears.
In the first play, Voyage, we are introduced to the young mostly well born idealists who visit the family estate of their comrade, the impassioned anarchist Michael Bakunin (Ethan Hawke) as unnoticed hoards of serfs (and mannequins of serfs) hover in the background. The play focuses on Bakunin’s family, the wealthy landowner and owner of serfs (or “souls” as they are counted) and family patriarch Alexander Bakukmin (Richard Easton), his wife Varvara (Amy Irving) and their four highly educated and marriageable daughters who resemble Chekhov’s Three Sisters in both their longing for a cultured, stimulating and productive life and their frustrations in love.Sensitive to the emotional climate of its Russian characters and the bittersweet passing of an era, the final moments of Voyage are as poignant and poetic as the finale of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. The second act flashes back to the friends’ university days and their growing intellectual commitment to change. The young romantics and radicals the charismatic wastrel Bakunin, philosopher Nicholas Stankevich (David Harbour), future novelist Ivan Turgenev (Jason Butler Harner), poet Nicholas Ogarev (Josh Hamilton) and low-born literary critic Vissarion Belinskly (an unrecognizable and terrific Billy Crudup) and editor and socialist Alexander Herzen (Brian O’Byrne) passionately debate German philosophers and dream of forging a modern Russia.
Shipwreck finds these characters in 1846 in living in exile. Herzen, who played a minor role in the first play, becomes the central character in the final two installments. And Tony-winner O’Byrne (Frozen, Doubt, Shining City), who hardly registers before, seems to expand into the role as a philosopher and husband to the passionate romantic Natalie (the lovely Jennifer Ehle, who beautifully inhabits a different character in each play). One of the great pleasures of The Coast of Utopia is watching such accomplished actors stretch themselves by playing such demanding roles or multiple characters in the three plays. Living in luxury as a voluntary exile with his family in Paris, Herzen reunites with his fellow well-to-do rebels and becomes disillusioned when the revolution of 1848 they witness firsthand ultimately fails to bring change. Herzen’s domestic life is upended when he learns that his wife has been having an affair with his friend Herwegh, and his beloved young son dies.
Salvage, the last and least involving of the plays, covers the years from 1853 to 1868 and is set in London where the now widowed Herzen lives in a complicated domestic arrangement with a strict German governess (once again the versatile Jennifer Ehle) managing his children and his friend Ogarev’s neurotic wife Natasha becoming his mistress. His periodical The Bell agitates for change in Russia but he and his comrades are pushed aside by the newer, more radical generation of rebels. The play touches on the emancipation of the serfs in 1861 and feels at time like it is playing catch up with the final years of Herzen’s life and Russian history.The Coast of Utopia is a monumental intellectual and theatrical adventure. The plays require an enormous commitment of time and money. Are they worth almost nine hours of one’s life and over $600? Decide for yourself!