By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 28, 2006
NEW YORK -- One's eye gets the sumptuous best of it in Jack O'Brien's staging of Tom Stoppard's giant heave of a trilogy, "The Coast of Utopia." The initial installment, "Voyage," begins with the enthralling image of a roaring sea and a man swirling in the water -- a man who is lost as much to the tides of history as he is to the waves.
His name is Alexander Herzen, a 19th-century Russian memoirist and political activist, played by Brian F. O'Byrne (a Tony winner for "Frozen"). It's a measure of Stoppard's scope in this sprawling and majestic (if overstuffed) yarn that Herzen doesn't even figure prominently in Part 1, which opened last night at the Vivian Beaumont Theater.
Herzen becomes a more pivotal character in the latter stages of the eight-hour drama, which the Lincoln Center Theater will unveil intermittently in the coming months. For us to fully appreciate his role (and those of his peers) in transforming Russia from a primitive, feudal society to something theoretically more cultured and egalitarian, a lot of groundwork apparently has to be laid. And here's the rub: The more we are exposed on this particular evening to Stoppard's teeming portrait of 19th-century intellectual fervor, the less able we are to forge a compelling bond with many of the figures who populate it.
This being the singular Stoppard, though -- a playwright capable of extracting meaningful drama from such unlikely sources as landscape architecture and quantum theory -- theatergoers have to take it on faith that investing time in Part 1 will lead to more substantial profit in Parts 2 and 3. Perhaps this band of comrades from the Russian intelligentsia, philosophers and poets, anarchists and journalists will register more seductively as the subversive currents introduced in Part 1 begin to coalesce more powerfully.
The hope is fueled by O'Byrne's intriguing cameo and even more solidly by Billy Crudup's wonderful turn as Vissarion Belinsky, a rumpled, rodentlike book critic who has assigned himself the task of championing a new Russian literary tradition. Of the three dozen actors in "Voyage," Crudup makes the most magnetic case for "The Coast of Utopia" and its narrative curlicues into the lives of its assorted mavericks.
Contrary to its advanced billing, "The Coast of Utopia" does not require a doctorate in czarist history. In drawing a political, social and intellectual road map to the Russia from which Russians would rebel so violently a half-century after the events of the play, Stoppard usefully narrows the focus to life on the country estate of a single family from the privileged classes.
The family happens to be that of Michael Bakunin (Ethan Hawke), a restless rich kid (with a voice like sandpaper) who is destined to become one of the era's leading anarchists. His moneyed parents, portrayed by Richard Easton and Amy Irving, routinely beat the serfs and plot to marry off their daughters (Jennifer Ehle, Martha Plimpton, Kellie Overbey, Annie Purcell) to various noblemen and soldiers. In a nod to his incipient skills as rabble-rouser, Michael incites his sisters against the men who pursue them; they remain restive and unfulfilled, as if they'd been following a script by Chekhov.
Infused with debate over the changing literary and philosophical fashions -- George Sand and Immanuel Kant being among the most oft-discussed -- "Voyage's" second half shifts to Moscow and a chronicle of the intermingling of Bakunin and other radicals. If there is any passion in this first installment, it is for the notion that ideas empower a nation, and words could be weapons of mass instruction. The story of "Voyage" banks continually from the shutting down of one dissident organ to the exile of another reform-minded advocate.
Given the totalitarian path Russia eventually would take (Herzen would be cited by Lenin as a positive influence), the muscular optimism expressed by the young men of "Voyage" feels as if it's perhaps setting up the trilogy as tragedy. But working against poignancy is the unspooling of lives in a rush of scenes and events that allow little time for savoring.
The highly capable O'Brien keeps the proceedings crisp, and freshest of all is the ravishing look of the piece. At the back of the stage behind a scrim, a multitude of mannequins cloaked in tattered shrouds maintain a haunting vigil; they're the faceless serfs -- "souls" in "Utopia" parlance -- whose plight gives the play its political conscience.
The set designers, Bob Crowley and Scott Pask, in concert with the lighting and costume designers Brian MacDevitt and Catherine Zuber, come up with other eye-catching marvels, as in a dazzling collection of Moscow skaters gliding under an ice sculpture of the Kremlin.
These stage pictures, however, tend to have more staying power than the people who inhabit them.
It's perplexing to note that at the curtain call, when all 36 actors march purposefully forward to take their bows, the exuberance is of a magnitude that hasn't been exhibited all evening. Only at the last are we permitted a real kinship with everyone on the stage.
The Coast of Utopia: Voyage (Part 1), by Tom Stoppard. Directed by Jack O'Brien. Original music and sound, Mark Bennett. With David Harbour, Jason Butler Harner, Josh Hamilton, David Cromwell, Mia Barron. About 2 hours 40 minutes. Through March 6 at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, Lincoln Center, New York. Call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.telecharge.com.