The Coast of Utopia
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 23, 2006
I had the great good fortune to see the first two parts of The Coast of Utopia in order on the same day; if you can, see this trilogy as it's intended to be seen, on subsequent evenings or, better, on one of the Saturdays when all three parts are being presented in an eight-hour marathon. (Note that as I write this, the third segment, Salvage, has not yet even begun previews at Lincoln Center Theater; I have to wait a couple of months to find out how the thing ends.)
Epic theatre, which is what this is, needs to be done epically. For Utopia's playwright, Tom Stoppard, I think that means presenting a sweeping story spanning three decades of turbulent Russian and European history and philosophy (everybody from Hegel to Kant to Marx), immersively and with great intensity, yet with sufficient breathing room to allow audiences to digest the rich and challenging ideas and complicated story lines: a theatre experience that fully occupies our consciousness without overwhelming it.
For director Jack O'Brien and his talented collaborators at LCT, I think the notion of "epic" is equated with bigness: a truly mammoth cast headed by a slew of movie stars and Tony winners (Richard Easton, Amy Irving, Billy Crudup, Ethan Hawke, Brian F. O'Byrne, Jennifer Ehle, Martha Plimpton) and a genuinely stunning design scheme featuring zillions of period costumes by Catherine Zuber and astonishing, ravishing, sometimes eye-popping sets by Bob Crowley and Scott Pask that appear and disappear magically under the gloriously evocative lighting design of Brian MacDevitt Part I, Voyage) and Kenneth Posner (Part II, Shipwreck). The plays begin with O'Byrne floating in midair and then descending into a tempest at sea, and the illusion really works while at the same time signaling: this is something special.
The Coast of Utopia deserves all this extravagance, though I won't go so far as to say that it's served well by it. Theatre this big translates in today's world as theatre that's grand; are Stoppard's big ideas, though, swallowed up—or at least somewhat diluted—by the grandiosity?
Voyage tracks a decade in the lives of a wealthy Russian family, the Bakunins, beginning in the summer of 1833. Alexander, the patriarch, is a philosopher who also runs an estate staffed by hundreds of "souls" (as the serfs who do all the work are euphemistically called); he's stubborn but indulgent with his wife and five children. He's portrayed by Easton, who dominates this play with a kind of effortless formidability. Alexander's wife is Varvara (Irving), who is defined mostly by her meanness to her servants. Their four daughters are Liubov (Ehle), dreamy and (as the play progresses) dying of tuberculosis; Varenka (Plimpton), sturdier, but trapped in a loveless marriage to a nobleman; Tatiana (the excellent Kellie Overbey), who matches wits with the revolutionary critic Vissarion Belinsky and the revolutionary playwright Ivan Turgenev; and the youngest (and least well-etched), Alexandra (Annie Purcell).
Their brother, Michael, is the family's vibrant and mercurial epicenter and, in Hawke's magnetic and high-energy performance, the focus of the play. Michael searches for a reason for his too-easy life in the theories of trendy European philosophers—so much so, in fact, that his restless changeability becomes a running joke. Eventually (in Shipwreck), he finds purpose and bearings in Marx's revolutionary ideas (or, more accurately, in reaction to them), throwing himself wholeheartedly into the wave of upheaval sweeping through Europe in 1848 and winding up under arrest in Saxony as a result.
But I get ahead of myself. Voyage, aptly named, reminded me of A Midsummer Night's Dream, tracking its youthful players (who also include the literary critic Belinsky, played by Crudup in a mannered but ultimately appealing performance; Turgenev, embodied masterfully by Jason Butler Harnar; and another well-to-do philosopher/layabout, Nicholas Stankevich, portrayed somewhat stiffly by David Harbour) as they flirt with each other and with the explosive ideas of their time, seemingly as much for the sake of pursuit as for actually wishing to land on anything particular and substantive. It's an entertaining, vital play about potential. When it's done, we're fulfilled but we're keenly aware that the story is far from over.
The second play, Shipwreck, follows Michael Bakunin and his friends Turgenev and Belinsky into a more mature and serious phase of their lives, as the revolutions of the 1840s transform their world and, in different ways, their characters. The center of this play, though, is another member of their circle, Alexander Herzen (O'Byrne, in a performance of penetrating intelligence and warmth). We meet him briefly in Voyage, before and then after many years spent in exile as an enemy of the Czar's regime. At the beginning of Shipwreck, Herzen has come sufficiently back into favor to be granted a passport; he leaves Russia, never to return, and we follow him and his family to Paris and then to Italy. Herzen, the sole voice of action in the first play, slowly atrophies into impotence in the second. If the theme of Voyage is discovery, Shipwreck's is mooring: the inertia and apathy that wealth and safety can engender, even in the most politically aware among us.
Herzen's journey is made alongside a free-thinking (and free-loving) wife, Natalie, and their two sons, one of whom is deaf. O'Brien has latched onto the son's disability and turned it into a potent if simplistic symbol. Natalie's character, though, suffers from the play's one serious casting mistake, with Ehle bringing little beyond an unsympathetic coldness to this woman who obviously means a great deal to our protagonist. As a result, Shipwreck is less effective than Voyage; it's a tougher nut to crack in any event since it's main idea is such a passive one. Stuff happens in Shipwreck, but the characters keep shying away from letting anything be at stake. It's a marked contrast to the breathless youthful zeal that runs through Voyage. And it ends, as its predecessor did, with the audience keenly aware that The Coast of Utopia has not yet run its course.
Which leads me to the only possibly conclusion I can reach at this stage of the game, which is that I am eager to see how it all comes out. (Read my reaction to the entire trilogy, including Salvage, in the nytheatre i.)