The image of a young boy spinning a top swirls throughout "Shipwreck," the thrilling second installment of Tom Stoppard's "The Coast of Utopia."
It's an apt visual metaphor for this heady chunk of Stoppard's gargantuan three-part, nine-hour drama that is unfolding – over several months - at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater.
"Shipwreck" finds Stoppard's assortment of Russian philosophers, poets, playwrights, critics and revolutionaries swept up in the tumultuous events of mid-19th century Europe, primarily in France.
The deeds are big. So are the discussions - dense, volatile and utterly theatrical thanks to Jack O'Brien's kinetic direction and a parade of amazing, agile actors who manage to create fascinating, full-bodied characters in the most fluid of circumstances.
"Voyage," Part 1 of "Utopia," which opened last month (and is stili running in rep at the Beaumont), serves as an introduction to these folks. "Shipwreck" zeros in on philosopher Alexander Herzen, the most humane of the Russian intellectuals who talk of freeing their homeland from the iron grip of the czar and who look with envy on the liberating forces sweeping other countries.
Herzen, this epic's moral center, is played by Brian F. O'Byrne, best known for his portrayal of a priest under suspicion in the Broadway success "Doubt." The stoic, almost taciturn O'Byrne gives a deceptively calm performance that explodes in anger and grief at two specific moments that are the play's emotional highlights.
One involves the lovely Jennifer Ehle, bewitching as Herzen's free-spirited wife. She is a woman who gives a bit too freely - and to one too many people. Her dalliance with German poet George Herwegh (a humorously self-centered David Harbour) threatens to capsize her marriage to Herzen.
"Shipwreck" begins on a note of exhilaration. Everything is possible, particularly in Paris, where Herzen and many of his friends have settled. The old order is on the way out. Or so it seems.
The French rebellion depicted in "Shipwreck" is the same one playing on Broadway in the revival of "Les Miserables." And there is a similar amount of flag-waving if not the exact turntable barricade of that landmark musical.
On the vast Beaumont stage, set designers Bob Crowley and Scott Pask create some striking images, ranging from the Place de la Concorde in a Paris overcome by unrest to the warm, sun-dappled garden of an estate outside of Moscow. And Catherine Zuber's sumptuous costumes complement the lavish scenery just as they did in "Voyage."
Yet "Shipwreck" - remember that title -is also about disappointment, exhaustion and the dashing of dreams. These men celebrate the revolutionary and cultural fervor in France and Germany, only to find it a temporary condition. Still, they were laying the groundwork for the fever that built slowly and then exploded in early 20th century Russia.
Characters such as literary critic Vissarion Belinsky (Billy Crudup), the ineffectual anarchist Michael Bakunin (Ethan Hawke) and writer Ivan Turgenev (Jason Butler Harner) reappear, and all three actors cement their fine contributions in Part 1 with equally invaluable contributions in "Shipwreck."
There are rich, new miniportraits, too: Amy Irving's embittered, estranged wife of poet Nicholas Ogarev; Richard Easton as a comic, quivery Russian diplomat; Adam Dannehisser as a buffoonish Karl Marx, and David Pittu, doing double duty as both an overly affected French servant and his opera-singing Italian counterpart.
Stoppard's plays are sometimes tarred as chilly intellectual arguments awash in verbal gymnastics. And the talk here is certainly heady. But, more often than not, it has heart and a deep emotional underpinning.
Near the end of "Shipwreck," there is a speech by Herzen of such aching beauty that if you are not moved to tears, you must be made of stone.
"Life's bounty is in its flow. Where is the song when it's been sung? The dance when it's been danced? It's only we humans who want to own the future, too," he says in an impassioned plea to embrace the moment.
The moments in "Shipwreck" are quite extraordinary. Now we look forward to "Salvage," the final chapter in Stoppard's mammoth achievement. It opens Feb. 15.
"Shipwreck," the second of three self·contained plays in Tom Stoppard's "The Coast of Utopia," begins two years after events of the opener, "Voyage." The drama moves from Russia to Western Europe, and sails its heroes - Russian radicals who imagined a fairer, freer society - into choppy waters of revolution. Reality bites. Disappointment gnaws.
"Shipwreck," which opened last night at the Vivian Beaumont, covers six years, beginning in 1846, and concentrates on writer Alexander Herzen (Brian F. O'Byrne) and his family. The tight focus makes for an accessible and engaging ride, as does the fact that love is as much a part of the story as philosophy and politics.
After 12 years of being unable to leave Russia, Herzen and his wife, Natalie (Jennifer Ehle), are allowed go abroad for the sake of their deaf son, Kolya.
They head to Paris, the hub of intellectual and revolutionary activity. Herzen reconnects with his fellow radicals: writer Ivan Turgenev (Jason Butler Harner), anarchist Michael Bakunin (Ethan Hawke) and literary critic Vissarion Belinsky (Billy Crudup). Soon the revolutions of 1848 break out across Europe. Bakunin - a meddler, as seen in "Voyage" - dashes to be at the frays. "Act first," he says. "The ideas will follow. Start by destroying everything."
Herzen deems that madness. But he winds up bitterly disillusioned when upheaval in France fails to bring freedom to the masses. Political woes are matched by personal crises arising from Natalie's affair with German (poet George Herwegh (David Harbour) and a tragedy at sea that befalls his beloved Kolya.
The dynamic O'Byrne infuses Herzen with a potent mix of passion, eloquence and humanity. Ehle, as his wife, simmers with sensuality and intelligence. Hawke, Harner, Crudup and Josh Hamilton, who appears briefly as poet Nicholas Ogarev, use the full force of their magnetism. Amy Irving, as Maria Ogarev, and new comer Bianca Amato, as Emma Herwegh, are vivid as wives - one estranged, one devoted.
The star of the show is the production itself. Director Jack O'Brien and his designers have made Stoppard's heady and sometimes windy drama a tour de force that is rich with unforgettable images: the Place de la Concorde before, during and after a revolt; a grand chandelier in a Paris flat that glows with excess; leafy trees quivering in unison, as if forecasting a storm.
On "Utopia's" glossy, jet-black stage, under Kenneth Posner's spellbinding lighting, images pop with astounding clarity. It struck me: I'm used to HDTV. O'Brien and company have crafted high-definition theater.
The plot thickens! Not that it was thin to start with: Lessons in history and the human heart rarely are.
The second installment of "The Coast of Utopia" - Tom Stoppard's exciting, haunting trio of plays about the 19th-century Russian intelligentsia - opened last night at the Vivian Beaumont with a cast of 36 of our finest actors, such as Jennifer Ehle, Brian F. O'Byrne and Billy Crudup.
This part, ominously call8d "Shipwreck," alternates with the first, "Voyage," and will eventually be joined by the third, "Salvage," in revolving repertory. But the order in which you see them makes a big difference. Although the "Shipwreck" program offers a kind of "the story up until now" insert, it's more a courtesy than a help.
The three plays are sequential not simply in time, but in intellectual involvement.
Stoppard is offering a window into a number of remarkable lives - well-heeled revolutionaries all, with nary a peasant among them - woven through with the idealistic but often fuzzy ideas that absorbed them and the frequently muzzy emotions that controlled them.
Set over some 35 years starting in the early 1830s, the trilogy reveals an opposition to the tyranny of the czar and his bureaucracy from members of Russia's upper-middle class, which eventually helped end Russian serfdom in 1861 - two years before America abolished slavery.
While much of "Voyage" was set in Russia, in "Shipwreck" the focus moves to Europe, where the Paris revolution of 1848 has collapsed, leaving a trail of bitter disillusionment in its wake.
Stoppard's central figure - Alexander Herzen, a fine writer and the world's richest revolutionary – emerges front and center. This is very much Herzen's world, and his ideas on a free society, and even a kind of free love - though not on his turf - dominate it with his own odd mix of realism and romanticism.
In O'Byrne's carefully calibrated performance, Herzen envisages a future still hopeful yet shadowed with despair, crushed with the loss of love and loved ones.
Circling around him are his wife, the ethereally spiritual Natalie (another touchingly tender yet impulsive portrayal from Ehle); her bumptious German lover, the poet George Herwegh (a colorless performance by David Harbour); Herwegh's wife, Emma (a softly spirited Bianca Amato), and characters we met in the first installment: Crudup's nuanced literary critic, Belinsky; and Ethan Hawke's firebrand Michael Bakunin.
Stoppard has changed the play since the 2002 London version, sometimes for the better - excising, for example, the pompous phrase, "Cynicism fills the air like ash and blights the leaves on the freedom tree."
But to cut by half Natalie's fascinating aria on life, art and love after confronting a phony painting make her comments less meaningful.
Stoppard is totally a man of the theater. In one fantastic tableau, he anticipates by 14 years Manet's great painting "Dejeuner sur I'herile," which has Ehle totally but tastefully nude.
Then comes Stoppard's stroke: We slowly gather that the characters are co-existing in two completely different scenic contexts talking at cross-purposes, unable even to see one another.
Although the plays so far are generally well-acted, the production has yet to have the thrust and grandeur of the original production, though the richly imaginative scenery by Bob Crowley and Scott Pask makes up for much.
In the final count, the trilogy unfolding at Lincoln Center becomes unforgettable and unmissable, an experience of life as much as an experience of art.
Tom Stoppard, a grand master of galloping conversation, knows when it’s time to shut up. The sumptuous Lincoln Center production of “Shipwreck,” the second part of Mr. Stoppard’s absorbing “Coast of Utopia” trilogy about Russian idealists errant in the 19th century, is filled with coups de théâtre.
There’s that magical materializing of the Place de la Concorde in Paris; the animated forest that suggests Birnam Wood is advancing on Moscow; tableaux vivants of Manet’s “Déjeuner sur l’Herbe” and Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People,” and, as always with Mr. Stoppard, dialogue that opens into startling splendor like a peacock preening its tail.
But the most stunning moment of all arrives when Mr. Stoppard simply pulls the plug on the dense talk that has been buzzing from the stage of the Vivian Beaumont Theater, where “Shipwreck” opened last night, and asks us to experience a world hitherto defined, above all, by words through the perspective of a deaf child.
It’s not exactly that the passionate debating, which has been going on with scarcely a pause through the first half of the first act, comes to a complete stop. That would be asking too much of the play’s logorrheic characters, who are never happier than when they are arguing about lofty subjects. They continue to work their mouths and gesticulate madly.
But we don’t hear them. The focus of attention in the scene — set in the lavishly appointed Paris salon of the Russian exile Alexander Herzen (Brian F. O’Byrne) and his wife, Natalie (Jennifer Ehle) in 1847 — shifts to their small son, Kolya (August Gladstone), who is playing with a top at the edge of the stage, his back to the throng of chattering adults. Deaf since birth, Kolya is aware only of the spinning top and the ominous vibrations of thunder.
That’s Mr. Stoppard’s sublimely theatrical way of admitting that words, his beloved stock in trade, ultimately don’t count for much in the course of human events. Many of his characters come to the same conclusion in “Shipwreck,” which is directed by Jack O’Brien with the same seductive vividness he brought to the trilogy’s first part, “Voyage,” which opened last month.
Being Stoppard characters, these high-thinking men and women manage to say, frequently and with remarkable verbal eloquence, that verbal eloquence is empty.
When momentous events happen in “Shipwreck,” whether national revolutions or personal betrayals, it’s not because a blueprint has been laid out in a book by Hegel, Marx or George Sand. “The names of things don’t come first,” says one character — Ivan Turgenev (Jason Butler Harner), as it happens. “Words stagger after, hopelessly trying to become the sensation.” History, Herzen later observes ruefully, “isn’t impressed by intellectuals.”
It is Mr. Stoppard’s acknowledgment of this principle, and Mr. O’Brien’s realization of it with his warmblooded cast and expert design team, that makes “The Coast of Utopia” so improbably entertaining. The thunderous vibrations that Kolya senses are the tremors of life asserting itself against those who would try to control it.
Those tremors never cease in the whirligig world of “Shipwreck,” which finds many of the restless youths introduced on Russian soil in “Voyage” — writers and ideologues and their wives and lovers — moving into adulthood in continental Europe. Adulthood does not mean stability.
Bakunin (Ethan Hawke), the aristocrat anarchist, is as prone to adolescent extremes as ever, the difference being that while once he merely talked about insurrection, now he actively agitates for it. Belinsky (Billy Crudup), the ferocious literary critic, is still mesmerizingly uncomfortable in his skin. And the rhythm of interaction among all the characters remains much the same: a speedy cycle of fiery conflicts and teary reconciliations.
In “Shipwreck,” though, the stakes are higher, both private and public. Abstractions are made flesh, as revolution is experienced first hand, in France and Germany, and the gospel of free love is put into practice. The consequences, especially for Herzen and Natalie and their circle of intimates, are shattering, at least for a while. The world continues to turn, and Herzen comes to believe that “life’s bounty is in its flow.” The same might be said of this production.
Far more than in “Voyage,” a single character dominates “Shipwreck.” That’s Herzen, a writer and solidly reflective figure amid the flux. Like that of many Stoppard heroes, his role is more reactive than active. Yet Mr. O’Byrne, one of Broadway’s finest actors (“Frozen,” “Doubt,” “Shining City”), never seems boringly passive. He makes Herzen’s philosophical evolution as much a matter of feeling as of thought.
He is well matched in Ms. Ehle, who brings to the terminally romantic Natalie the same emotional transparency that illuminated her Tony-winning performance in the Broadway revival of Mr. Stoppard’s “Real Thing.” Together they provide a sobering emotional center that is necessary to “Shipwreck.”
Ms. Ehle appeared in “Voyage” as the anxious, tubercular Liubov. One of the special pleasures of seeing all of “Utopia” (“Salvage,” the third and final installment, opens in February) is the chance it affords to watch actors reinvent themselves in different parts or expand in continuing ones. Mr. Harner, as Turgenev, and Josh Hamilton, as the poet Ogarev, come into their own here, with seamless characterizations that were only hinted at in “Voyage.”
David Harbour, a shy, consumptive philosopher in “Voyage,” delivers a delicious comic turn as Herwegh, a German poet who prides himself on his sexual seductiveness and literary idleness. (“Pushkin wrote far too much,” he says complacently.) As his wife Bianca Amato sharply and affectingly registers the toll of living with such a man.
The production’s tastiest surprise, though, is Amy Irving, last seen as a stolid matriarch in “Voyage,” who here shows up as Ogarev’s estranged wife, Maria, a free-living artist’s muse and model in Paris. Ms. Irving plays the role with a jaded but overpowering sensuality that gives the lie to the romantic idealism of Ms. Ehle’s Natalie.
Mr. Stoppard is always pulling the rug out from under the idealistic aspirations and postures in “Utopia,” including those of a playwright who dares to paint on such a broad historical canvas. Words, words, words are irresistible to Mr. Stoppard. And like his characters he probably uses too many of them, making the same point a few times too many, or parading in-joke cleverness for its own sake.
More notable for the velocity than for the depth of his thought, Mr. Stoppard isn’t delivering any intellectual aperçus here that couldn’t be picked up in a good university seminar about 19th-century Russian novelists. It’s the collision of thought with feeling, of tidy intellect with the chaos of life, that generates such blazing theatrical heat.
All head, no heart is a common criticism of Tom Stoppard's work. But the most unexpected and enriching surprise of "Shipwreck," the second part of the playwright's epic trilogy "The Coast of Utopia," is that its intellectual vigor is equaled, perhaps even surpassed by its enormous emotional vitality. Jack O'Brien's mesmerizing production of part one, "Voyage," was a dazzling theatrical achievement. In this Euro-trotting second chapter, the political and personal passions of the play's dreamy-eyed 19th-century Russian revolutionaries ripen with age and experience, making it arguably even better.
If the demands of honing their performances and grappling with the loquacious texts of two massive dramas back to back -- with one more still to come -- are proving taxing, there's no sign of fatigue in the superb ensemble. If anything, the characterizations here are more fine-grained, particularly the incandescent Jennifer Ehle, who makes proto-hippie Natalie Herzen the most fascinating figure onstage. While the women in "Voyage" were mainly passive, this character strides decisively into scene one to show that philosophical debate is not the exclusive domain of men.
As suggested by the opening image of "Voyage," replayed here to great effect, Natalie's husband, radical thinker Alexander Herzen, has become the central character. Played by Brian F. O'Byrne with charismatic self-possession, his incisive ability to cut through the pretensions of his friends makes Herzen more clear-eyed than the lofty idealists, reckless zealots and distracted dandies with whom he associates.
Despite the fiery convictions that galvanized them in their 20s, the privileged intelligentsia -- as they come to be known in Russia's first contribution to the international lexicon -- appear condemned to redundancy as the play opens in 1846. Summering outside Moscow, the Herzens, poet Nicholas Ogarev (Josh Hamilton) and writer Ivan Turgenev (Jason Butler Harner) laze about contemplating the immortality of the soul or the perfect cup of coffee with the same air of futility.
Intoxicating as the language is, this stasis weighs on the early scenes. But the drama gets a jolt of excitement when the Herzens are given permission to travel abroad to seek treatment for their deaf son Kolya (August Gladstone).
The wealthy family relocates to Paris, where the ferment of revolution acts as a magnet, drawing in key characters including roving firebrand Michael Bakunin (Ethan Hawke). Only consumptive literary critic Vissarion Belinsky (Billy Crudup), the one member of the group from humble roots, responds uneasily to the climate of freedom -- as if perceiving the failure of the new age supposedly dawning with the overthrow of King Louis Philippe.
Stoppard observes this idle elite playing at shaping history with a similar melancholy skepticism. This is amplified as private sorrows increasingly come to mirror the larger disappointments of the revolutions sweeping Europe.
In a sensual scene that re-creates Manet's "Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe," Natalie begins an affair with German poet George Herwegh (David Harbour). A true bohemian, Natalie believes her extramarital romance in no way compromises her bond with Alexander and is as pure a love as her passionate feelings for her friend Natasha (Martha Plimpton) or son Kolya. But the relationship leaves Herwegh's Jewish wife (Bianca Amato) embittered, while Alexander initially is too bourgeois to accept his wife's reasoning.
This is a play of exile driven by the roller coaster of political hope and failure, and the philosophical discourse is perhaps more fully integrated into the dramatic fiber than in "Voyage." But it's Stoppard's ruminative exploration of messy, hurtful human relationships in act two that makes "Shipwreck" resonate so powerfully. The playwright makes Natalie such a formidable and passionate character, pursuing an ideal of love as elusive as the utopia her husband seeks, that when tragedy strikes directly at her heart, it's devastating.
In a play that shuffles chronology and includes scenes of simultaneous overlapping action, O'Brien shifts with masterful clarity between naturalistic presentation and stylized interludes from the imagination, between somberness and subtle humor with a deftly measured touch. Under the director's unfaltering command, the characters surge to the foreground and then recede gracefully to the margins with the majestic ebb and flow of great literature.
Taking the lead on design in this installment, Scott Pask's excellent work is a seamless continuation of Bob Crowley's vision in "Voyage," combining extravagant strokes with a marvelous economy of means. The use of extended perspective in depicting Place de la Concorde is beautiful, the chandelier is a knockout and the French Revolution of 1848 is staged with bold operatic flair. Kenneth Posner's dappled lighting is an essential contribution to the visual splendor.
The compelling work of O'Byrne and Ehle dominates the play, and their confrontation, when Alexander learns of Natalie's affair, is shattering.
But there are especially fine moments also from Crudup, who makes a soulful, perceptive figure of frail Belinsky; from Amato as helpless Emma Herwegh; from Harner, who injects wit and wistfulness into Turgenev, hopelessly in love with an unattainable opera diva; from Amy Irving, who has one terrific, flinty scene as Ogarev's unyielding estranged wife; and from Richard Easton, who gets the play's biggest laughs with a delicious portrayal of the fawning Russian consul general in Nice.
Part three, "Salvage," opens Feb. 15, after which the "Utopia" trilogy plays in rep at the Beaumont through May 13. Broadway will struggle during this and possibly many other seasons to come up with an event to top this dynamic presentation of an extraordinarily rich and highly literate drama.