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.