The passions of their idealistic youth run up against reality and middle-age for the 19th century revolutionaries and intellectuals in "Salvage," the third chapter of "The Coast of Utopia," Tom Stoppard's masterful trilogy of man's quest for a new and better world.
Rueful resignation isn't as dramatically exciting, so the Lincoln Center Theater production of "Salvage" doesn't have the innate theatricality that propelled 'Voyage" and "Shipwreck,' the first two-thirds of Stoppard's mammoth work.
Yet that doesn't stop director Jack O'Brien and his amazing company of actors from breathing urgency into the demanding, sometimes dense conversations of these squabbling European firebrands in exile in Victorian England. It's a strange land for most of them, a place where 'having one's say isn't grounds for arrest."
As "Salvage" opens, they are a cacophony of voices, a blur of petty jealousies, competing ideologies and just downright eccentricities. It's hard to keep them straight. No wonder the revolution of 1848, which swept Europe, never produced much change.
Fortunately, the play focuses on the hopeful presence of Alexander Herzen, the Russian editor and wealthy benefactor for other radical theorists. As played by the thoughtful and commanding Brian F. O'Byrne, he is the rock who anchors much of the trilogy through its most meandering moments.
Even though he proclaims, at age 40, "I have lost every illusion dear to me,' Herzen continues to be optimistic about the future.
He's a Slavic Candide, a man who disdains the slash-and-burn tactics of Karl Marx (Adam Dannheisser), author of the Communist Manifesto, and childish anarchist Michael Bakunin (Ethan Hawke). Yet Herzen wants change, too, only without destroying everything in its path.
In "Salvage," Stoppard alternates that political desire for something new with more private upheavals.
When Herzen isn't agitating for freeing the serfs, he is dealing with domestic duties, trying to make sense of his family life after the death of his wife and younger son. He still has three other children to care for and into their orbit comes a stern German governess, played with crisp, Teutonic authority by a marvelous Jennifer Ehle.
His home life also is stirred by his feelings for Natasha Ogarev (Martha Plimpton), second wife of his good friend, poet Nicholas Ogarev (Josh Hamilton). The exuberant Plimpton and the mordant Hamilton deliver finely etched portraits that stand out in this continuous parade of literary and historical characters.
Among the other notable acting turns are Richard Easton as a tottering Polish nobleman and Jason Butler Harner as playwright and novelist Ivan Turgenev.
One of the themes of 'Salvage" concerns the passing of the torch - a transfer of power to a new generation of revolutionaries. It's accomplished with only a twinge of sadness. Stoppard produces a generous coda to all who have gone before. His language is simple, direct and heartbreaking, in startling contrast to many of the intellectually high-wire conversations that pepper the three plays.
'Our meaning is how we live in an imperfect world, in our time. We have no other,' Herzen concludes after his arduous search for what he calls "Utopia." His realization precedes one of the play's loveliest images created by the production's twin set designers - Bob Crowley and Scott Pasko. It's a swirling, churning backdrop of water, a reminder that history is forever churning.
All three works - "Voyage,' "Shipwreck" and 'Salvage" - are now running in rep through May 13 at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in Lincoln Center. Miss them at your peril.
The voyage is complete, the journey ended. "Salvage," the third and last installment of Tom Stoppard's dazzling and wonderfully satisfying trilogy, "The Coast of Utopia," opened last night at the Vivian Beaumont Theater.
These three plays, now rotating in repertory (for the tough of mind and posterior, there are also nine one-day marathons starting Saturday) offer Stoppard's compelling and satisfying insight into the joys, hopes and weaknesses of the human soul.
Together, they trace the lives of an exiled group of Russian intelligentsia, revolutionaries all, during the 19th century from 1833 until 1868.
They all dream of freedom - some in terms of socialism, others in terms of anarchism - and these dreams impact and sometimes impair their personal lives.
The hero is Alexander Herzen (Brian F. O'Byrne) - thinker, writer and wealthy revolutionary, who stands at the center of a group of friends: Herzen's childhood companion, the poet Nicholas Ogarev (Josh Hamilton); the wayward spiritual father of anarchism, Michael Bakunin (Ethan Hawke); the novelist Ivan Turgenev (Jason Butler Harner); and, for the first two installments, Vissarion Belinsky (Billy Crudup), who dies before "Salvage" begins.
Herzen, an oddly passive man of action, and almost a template for what in the later 19th century would be known as Fabianism, believes in revolution by slow social change. That is his tragedy - and, remembering the final failure of his most considerable historic opponent, Karl Marx, possibly his legacy.
Yet, for all its surface concern with ideas and politics, "The Coast of Utopia" is not at heart a political play, and is certainly far from a political tract.
It is, if you like, a political landscape with figures. But when all is said and done, it is the figures who remain with us, all searching in their own way for what Herzen calls "the summer lightning of personal happiness."
Certainly, at some nine hours, "The Coast of Utopia" clocks in as a long play, and some people have apparently found its complex and deliberately leisurely development more boring than leisurely.
Looking back at Stoppard's wordy yet exhilarating dramatic tapestry, I'm amazed at how thrillingly this Lincoln Center company - helped by Jack O'Brien's alertly balanced staging - has brought it off.
O'Byrne, whose sensitive development of Herzen's character covers the entire span of "Voyage," "Shipwreck" and "Salvage," fascinatingly provides the fulcrum of the trilogy.
But it's unfair to single him out, since Hawke has never been better than here as Bakunin, a cadging, shining-eyed monster of opportunistic anarchy. Then, too, there are Hamilton's seedily realistic Ogarev, and Harner's just as seedily elegant Turgenev, who, in a pleasant irony surely not lost on Stoppard, is the play's only character many people will have previously heard of.
Then there are those playing more than one role in the course of the trilogy, including the wonderful veteran Richard Easton, and David Barbour who, in "Salvage," is absolutely chilling as a mysterious nihilist, whose chance meeting with Turgenev inspires the character Bazarov in his novel "Fathers and Sons."
Nor can we forget the women - Martha Plimpton, Amy Irving (like Crudup, not in "Salvage") and the extraordinary Jennifer Ehle - who together with all the rest made up a cast that represented repertory acting at its finest.
Add to that the sets by Bob Crowley and Scott Pask, the costumes by Catherine Zuber, and the lighting by Brian MacDevitt ("Voyage"), Kenneth Posner ("Shipwreck") and Natasha Katz ("Salvage"), and you have a production to be savored, like some heady brandy - rolled over in the palate of the mind, and treasured in the heart.
That’s life, eh? Or life, anyway, as it is presented with such exuberance in “Salvage,” the concluding play in the brave and gorgeous New York production of Tom Stoppard’s “Coast of Utopia” trilogy, which opened last night at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center.
Come to think of it, if you’re someone who is consistently dismayed and enchanted by the upheavals and the silences, the unpredictability and the repetitiveness, the precise patterns and the confounding sloppiness of your behavior and that of those around you — well, you’re likely to find that the lives of Mr. Stoppard’s 19th-century Russian revolutionaries are not so unlike your own.
Can we clear up one thing right away? Despite its status as the season’s ultimate snob ticket, a concert of clever historical name-dropping orchestrated to give middle-brow audiences the illusion of a brow lift, “The Coast of Utopia” is as hot-blooded and teary-eyed as your average afternoon soap opera.
I wouldn’t call it a major work of art. In literary terms I wouldn’t even rank it with Mr. Stoppard’s best (in which I include the Broadway-bound “Rock ’n’ Roll”). But as directed by Jack O’Brien and acted and designed by a stellar team of artisans, “Utopia” is a major work of theatrical craftsmanship, a luscious advertisement for the singular narrative seductiveness of drama. By the way, I arrived at “Salvage” with a headache, a chill and a general reluctance to listen to the fractious chatter of difficult people with unpronounceable names. Ten minutes after the curtain rose I was as hooked as a 10-year-old with the latest “Harry Potter.”
Theatergoers who attend these plays strictly as an educational experience may well be disappointed. Sure, they are likely to retain a mnemonically helpful animated timeline for the lesser revolutions between the big ones in France and Russia, as well as some spicy anecdotes about the sex lives and drinking habits of aristocratic intellectuals who died more than a century ago.
But as for major insights of philosophical or historical weight, that’s not what “Utopia” is about. “Salvage” ends three decades (that’s more than eight hours of stage time) after “Voyage,” the first play in the trilogy, begins. And what can its surviving characters (and for that matter, its surviving audience members) say they have learned through all those years?
Only that life is exciting, boring, generous, cruel and ultimately uncontrollable. In other words, life really is a mess, as consuming and capricious as the ocean storms that are evoked so exquisitely by this production’s technical wizards.
As Alexander Herzen (the excellent Brian F. O’Byrne), the itinerant political theorist and the trilogy’s central figure, says in the concluding scene: “It takes wit and courage to make our way while our way is making us, with no consolation to count on but art and the summer lightning of personal happiness.”
Pretty words, but you could find a snappier, shorter version of the same idea in a fortune cookie. What makes “Utopia” such indispensable theater is Mr. Stoppard’s full-hearted embrace of the flux and chaos of history, along with his youthful delight as a student of human idiosyncrasy.
“Salvage,” set mostly in England, where Herzen is living in exile, assumes a more contemplative distance than its predecessors in regarding the riots, assassination attempts and insurrections that continue to erupt throughout Europe.
But it is as filled as the other plays in the trilogy with the confounding quirks and kinks and collisions — some gleeful, some sorrowful — of its principal characters, all based on real people. There’s a kind of infectious bliss, both prurient and empathetic, in the relating of these episodes. You can imagine Mr. Stoppard, researching his subject, happily stumbling upon the story of, say, Turgenev and the suppository and burbling, “Oh, but I have to work that in somehow.”
Yet despite some unnecessary repetitions of its principal characters’ views on the nature of revolution, “Salvage” rarely feels stodgy or overstuffed. The years fly like calendar leaves in an old-time movie, as Herzen and his good friend the poet Nicholas Ogarev (Josh Hamilton) establish a subversive printing press and periodicals, entertain the cream (and dross) of revolutionary exiles and set up a shifting household and sexual ménage whereby Natasha (Martha Plimpton), Ogarev’s wife, becomes Herzen’s mistress.
Nearly every scene is built on the impossibility of imposing order on the squirming mass of contradictions of human existence. The same evidence of dashed intentions comes across in matters domestic (in the chaotic rearing of Herzen’s children, despite a resolute German governess, played by the Jennifer Ehle) and epochal (the freeing of the serfs in Russia in 1861).
Appropriately Bob Crowley and Scott Pask’s brilliant set has now morphed into a sort of glamorous junkyard of cultural and historical detritus (a crashed chandelier, a rotting piano). Small echoes of this sense of shattered expectations resonate poetically throughout, as when a banner celebrating a political triumph winds up being used as a blanket for a sleeping child.
Good things come to actors who wait in “The Coast of Utopia.” And “Salvage” allows characters who have been only tantalizingly glimpsed before to step into their own as full paradoxical personalities, including Ms. Plimpton’s passionately ambivalent Natasha, Mr. Hamilton’s amiably alcoholic Ogarev and Jason Butler Harner’s deliciously nonjudgmental Turgenev. (Turgenev’s tendency to see everybody’s point of view drives his friends mad. He would appear to have a certain amount in common with Mr. Stoppard.)
This production also lets us savor the actor’s tasty art of expert reincarnation, via performers who showed up in different roles in earlier installments. (Ms. Ehle’s obdurate governess and Richard Easton’s dying Polish count are especially memorable.) Fans of Ethan Hawke will be pleased to know that his character, the anarchist Bakunin, gets out of prison and is, if possible, even more obnoxious than before. (That’s meant as praise.)
Then there’s the pleasure of watching characters age before your eyes, without your realizing it, a transition that Mr. O’Byrne, in particular, delivers with poignant subtlety and grace. His Herzen emerges, more than ever, as the play’s soul and center, a man of fixed principles and personal inconsistencies, whose subliminal physical awkwardness betrays his inability to ever quite fit in the world around him.
Herzen has the big and beautiful speech at the end about human valiance and futility amid cosmic chaos. But there’s an equally piquant, much shorter summing up of the play’s essence a few scenes earlier, when Mary (Kellie Overbey), a prostitute taken up by Ogarev, considers her situation.
“An aristocratic Russian poet,” she says, looking at a sodden Ogarev sprawled at her feet. “I wouldn’t have dared make it my dream... and look, it’s just life, life, after all.”
Thoughts after the final installment of "The Coast of Utopia," Tom Stoppard's unforgettable trilogy about the forgotten 19th century exiles who set the stage for what they believed would be the massive social progress of the Russian Revolution.
In the months since the first part, "Voyage," was revealed in Jack O'Brien's staggeringly beautiful production, the heady extravaganza has grown into the least likely of Broadway triumphs. The opening third had filled us with admiration for the epic's almost absurd audacity. The midpoint, "Shipwreck," tightened the grip with evermore- engrossing tales of the privileged, young Russian thinkers - once hot-headed university friends in Moscow - bounding around France, Italy and Germany in the years before and after the pan-European revolts of 1848.
If the first two plays enthralled with their outlandish multi-taxing ambition and the oddly touching dedication of their 44 gifted actors, these last hours burrow deep into the emotional marrow of the restless individuals we have come to enjoy and - flaws and all - to cherish.
"Salvage," set in London and Geneva from 1853-1868, isn't remarkable for the one or two boggling visual moments that were the talk of its predecessors. The production - sets by Bob Crowley and Scott Pask, costumes by Catherine Zuber and, this time, lights by Natasha Katz - is as masterly as ever, again beginning with the sight of the aging Alexander Herzen in a turning chair that hovers high above the silken ravages of the sea.
But this one's moodier, at times hallucinatory, as Stoppard hones in on Herzen, finally the main character among the many. Revealed layer by layer by Brian F. O'Byrne, the privileged intellectual brings us into the twilight of the struggle between his dream of peaceful change and the next generation of radical "new men" who trust only in the truth of "the ax." In grief for his dead wife and child, separated forever from Russians who read him in a smuggled periodical, he and his wounded idealism stand in the shadows of history, yesterday's news, never knowing what lies ahead.
The wonderful actors, who've been performing the finished work while rehearsing the next, have been part of the evolution of this monumental piece - theater that lives now in the elevated memories with "Angels in America" and "Nicholas Nickleby." When "Utopia" was first staged by Trevor Nunn in London in 2002, the plays felt more like a diffuse result of research. In O'Brien's superior production, Stoppard processes the brilliant pieces of name-dropping and idea-dropping into an emotional vision.
In "Salvage," we no longer can watch the psychological growth of Billy Crudup's febrile, consumptive Belinsky, the literary critic, and we would have liked to have seen Amy Irving take on yet-another of Stoppard's increasingly essential women.
But Ethan Hawke, perhaps the biggest surprise of the trilogy, can show the lifelong arch of Bakunin, the overbearing, eager young aristocrat who becomes the equally overbearing anarchist. Jennifer Ehle, so radiantly complex as Herzen's wife in "Shipwrecked," now plays the equally complicated but unyielding German governess. Josh Hamilton, the poet Ogarev, didn't appear much in previous plays, yet grows marvelously in stature and vulnerability.
Martha Plimpton is flinty and impressive as Ogarev's high-spirited wife who eventually shares both men with equal tempestuousness. The invaluable Richard Easton, a centerpiece of weary aristocracy in the first part, returns as Polish royalty in service of revolution.
The era appears to have been a horrible one for men's hair but an enchantingly romantic and disenchanted time for challenging the order of everything, from the wealth to bourgeois marriage. The Nihilists are charging in, but so is Rousseau and the glorification of nature.
The action still is set on the glossy reflecting circle, but this time, there's a brief evocation of Manet in the dislocated luxury. Along with an onstage upright piano, the crystal chandeliers and other finery of the previous plays are crushed and piled up in one corner like trash.
On Saturday, the actors perform the first of their all-day "Utopia" marathons.
We cannot help thinking that, finally, the city has that long-discussed repertory company, up and functioning, in the playhouse where so many dreams of national theaters have died. Must the actors be exiled from such utopia again?
Chief among the countless strokes of genius in Jack O'Brien's production of "The Coast of Utopia" was beginning each of the three plays that comprise Tom Stoppard's epic trilogy with the same stirring image. As Mark Bennett's muscular music swells, the silken waves billow in the moody half-light and pensive political thinker Alexander Herzen spins on an elevated chair centerstage, the opening seconds have become like a great title sequence for your favorite highbrow miniseries. Traveling with the drama's cast of exiles and emigres through to the conclusion is exhilarating, edifying and at times a little enervating. But even if the final chapter, "Salvage," is the weakest of the three plays, the overall achievement remains undiminished.
Stoppard has given Herzen (Brian F. O'Byrne) a beautiful closing speech about the futility of striving for impossible utopias, the balance of history and chance, the importance of passing on ideas and the need to reject destructive conflicts in the name of revolution. "Our meaning is in how we live in an imperfect world, in our time," he says. "We have no other." But the efficiency and economy of that distillation are missing elsewhere in a play less cogent than its two predecessors.
In action spanning 1833 to 1866 and in eight hours of stage time, we have followed a fascinating group of Russian idealists from their intoxicating days of student radicalism through the excitement of revolution to its bitter letdown and on to the mellowing disappointments of impending old age.
Given that so much of the drama becomes about disillusionment -- as Herzen in particular struggles to accept his dismissal by the new generation of young radicals as obsolete and irrelevant -- perhaps a certain anticlimactic feeling was inevitable. "Failure piled upon loss," is Herzen's illuminating summation. But while O'Byrne's melancholy, deeply reflective characterization channels the play's essence, the emotional impact here pales next to the searing poignancy of part two, "Shipwreck," which for this reviewer is the trilogy's high point.
Binding the physically and intellectually sprawling narrative into a cohesive whole was a tall order and Stoppard goes further than most writers would in achieving this ambitious goal. But the political discourse in "Salvage" is less seamlessly interwoven with the characters' personal vicissitudes and certainly less bracing. It's easy to share Herzen's sadness as, self-exiled in London and later in Switzerland, he feels the chasm separating him from his homeland widen or watches his children become less and less Russian. But his sorrow as the limitations of his impassioned political beliefs are exposed remains more remote.
Unlike the first two plays, the elegance and erudition of Stoppard's writing are undermined at times by the challenge of cramming so much information into a dramaturgical package, with characters often recapitulating events purely for the audience's benefit.
All that aside, there's still more dazzling stagecraft in any one of these three Lincoln Center Theater productions than most companies can muster in several seasons. And the enormous cast is the closest thing New York has seen in a long time to an accomplished repertory troupe.
O'Byrne's performance has steadily grown in stature and humanity through its accumulation of fine details, turning increasingly more introspective to shed light on the man and his alienation. As the strong-willed German governess to the widowed Herzen's children, Jennifer Ehle adds another flinty characterization to stand alongside her intelligent work as Liubov Bakunin in the first installment, "Voyage," and her luminous Natalie Herzen in "Shipwreck" -- three remarkably distinct women who share deep self-knowledge.
Martha Plimpton gains complexity here as Natasha Tuchkov Ogarev, the high-spirited best friend of the late Natalie who marries Alexander's poet buddy Nicholas Ogarev (Josh Hamilton) and becomes emotionally entwined with Herzen. Their troubled menage soulfully illustrates the relationship failings that mirror the drama's social, political and moral ones. On the sidelines up to this point, Hamilton vividly animates epileptic alcoholic Nicholas, as wry and ironic in his worldview as Alexander is brooding and meditative.
Ethan Hawke's rich-boy rebel, Michael Bakunin, is seen only briefly here, first in an interlude of Herzen's imagining as he sits in a Siberian prison itching to get back in the fight. Despite his reduced stage time, Hawke is an amusingly blustery presence, growing heavier and grayer but no more anchored in his feverish bouncing from cause to cause. Like Nicholas, the anarchist character provides a telling contrast with Alexander, who ruefully acknowledges that the moment for revolution has passed while Bakunin is always spoiling for the next round.
Chief disappointment on the cast front in "Salvage" is the absence of Billy Crudup, whose consumptive literary critic Belinsky was a highlight of the first two plays. Also missing after lovely work earlier is Amy Irving, while David Harbour here has only one short, enigmatic scene and Richard Easton's role as a Polish opposition leader suffers from its position during act one's stodgy opening stretch.
The debris of the past, of wilted dreams and tarnished glories, is artfully echoed in design team Bob Crowley and Scott Pask's set, fringed by crumbled splendor. Creative contributions are of the highest order throughout, with Natasha Katz's lighting here often casting the wistful mood of somber twilight. Catherine Zuber's extensive costumes are again impeccable.
Ultimately, this is as much O'Brien's show as it is Stoppard's, cementing the director's rep as one of the boldest, most inventive visionaries in contemporary theater. Keeping the brainy talkathon flowing like liquid on and around the stage's constantly spinning black turntable, O'Brien is a robust visual storyteller and a masterful manipulator of actors. This vast project is his triumph.