It’s conceivable that many will approach “The Coast of Utopia” as a highbrow cultural chore. The opening installment of Tom Stoppard’s trilogy, “Voyage” is a lengthy play about philosophy, politics, literature and intellectual life in pre-Revolution Russia as well as, in many ways, an extended prologue to the six hours still to come. Sound arduous? It’s not. With one magnificent theatrical flourish within the first few minutes, director Jack O’Brien has swept away all sense of trepidation, providing thrilling assurance that this brawny, brainy dissertation could not be in more capable hands..
There’s more talk than drama spread across Stoppard’s extended canvas, which certainly requires concentration. But regardless of one’s interest in 19th century Russian history, the novelistic play is a spry, witty and thoroughly intriguing account of men and ideas.
O’Brien has conquered the more inaccessible peaks of Stoppard’s scholarly expeditions before. In his Lincoln Center Theater production of “The Invention of Love,” he rendered the playwright’s daunting erudition, meticulous research and seemingly academic subject (poet and classicist A.E. Housman) cogent, immediate and even emotional. And with his last job at the Beaumont, “Henry IV,” the director proved his muscular wrangling skills with a large cast and sprawling drama.
His command here is even more impressive. Working with an expert ensemble (some of whom play other roles in parts two and three), O’Brien again finds not only the beauty but the air and light in Stoppard’s dense language.
Describing the opening image would diminish its ravishing impact, but a key component is the positioning of Alexander Herzen (Brian F. O’Byrne), suspended center stage. While the Socialist radical is featured only marginally in “Voyage,” he becomes a key figure in “Shipwreck” and “Salvage,” the trilogy’s second and third sequential, self-contained plays.
There’s a big-picture handle on the material here that bodes well for the long-range project. Part two opens Dec. 21 and part three Feb. 15, with the complete trilogy playing in rep through mid-March.
Stoppard focuses on five friends actively engaged in shaping history with varying degrees of efficacy as philosophers, politicians or artists. Fumbling at times but invariably passionate, the men share a utopian desire while finding their own path to carve a more dignified future for Russia. Their collective spirit represents the seeds of revolution.
Chekhovian in feeling yet Shavian in its appetite for political argument, “Voyage” spans the summer of 1833 through autumn 1844. The settings are Premukhino, the country estate of wealthy landowner Alexander Bakunin (Richard Easton); Moscow; and St. Petersburg.
The ongoing existence of serfdom is symptomatic of a stifling czarist culture ripe for overthrow. “My estate is of 500 souls and I am not ashamed,” says Bakunin, while the faceless mass of servants look on hauntingly from behind a ragged upstage scrim. Over the course of the action, the real world’s increasing intrusion on this sheltered domain is reflected in Bakunin’s failing faculties — complacent tradition threatened by radical change. In a perf gently poised between the cantankerous and the wistful, Easton provides “Voyage” with a melancholy heart.
The play’s central figure, however, is Bakunin’s son, the future anarchist Michael (Ethan Hawke). With Vissarion Belinsky (Billy Crudup), a literary critic from a less privileged class, and fellow Moscow U. student Nicholas Stankevich (David Harbour), he forms a philosophy circle devoted to German thinkers such as Kant and Hegel. Bemoaning the idolatry in retrograde Russia of all things foreign and the absence of a defining national culture and literature (Pushkin is the exception, while Gogol is only beginning to emerge), the three young idealists are nevertheless prevented by censorship from speaking out.
Herzen shares the trio’s discontent, yet he approaches the situation not as a romanticist but with a rationalist’s desire for action. While Bakunin, Belinsky and Stankevich look to the Germans, Herzen and his friend, poet Nicholas Ogarev (Josh Hamilton), eye the French Revolution as their model. Occasional appearances are made by novelist Ivan Turgenev (Jason Butler Harner), a sportsman whose artistic ideals are not yet fully formed.
It’s striking, even audacious, that Stoppard is not mining historical material for contemporary relevance. Political and cultural idealism have currency in any age, including our own, but the playwright’s primary aim appears to be exploring a period of intense personal fascination purely within its own context. It’s the ardor he brings to his lucid investigation of the play’s influential figures and their complex relationships that makes that fascination contagious.
The text has been streamlined since the play’s 2002 premiere in London (where, unlike New York, the complete trilogy bowed simultaneously), with some of the more taxing passages tamed. And the design approach adopted here is entirely different. Where Trevor Nunn’s original National Theater production made extensive use of William Dudley’s CG projections, O’Brien collaborates with designers Bob Crowley and Scott Pask on a more traditional presentation. (Crowley takes the lead on “Voyage,” Pask on “Shipwreck”; the two will team on “Salvage.”)
Using the full depth and imposing height of the Beaumont, the stage pictures here are breathtaking. Whether it’s an elegant fancy-dress ball or skaters on a winter pond, with a glass rendering of St. Basil’s Cathedral dripping icy stalactites above, the imagery is gorgeous. Catherine Zuber’s richly detailed costumes and the delicate textures of Brian MacDevitt’s lighting also are vital in making the play as alive visually as it is intellectually.
As much as the staging is vigorously theatrical, O’Brien’s direction is also cinematic. With resourceful use of a turntable on the black, lacquered stage, he instills remarkable fluidity into a drama covering more than a decade and numerous principal characters, while precisely directing the audience’s focus within each vast, handsomely composed frame.
Hawke (who worked with O’Brien in “Henry IV”) has never been more charismatic, playing Bakunin with the swaggering self-assurance of a slightly effete rock star. Hitching his wagon to others smarter than he is, the reckless character bounces, untethered, from one philosophical doctrine to the next on his way to forging a political identity. But Bakunin seems certain he will leave his imprint on history. “I’m one of those who are born for their time,” he declares.
Crudup’s Belinsky is a far more humble, more subtly nuanced character. He’s socially inept, jittery and a little awed by the idyllic environment of Premukhino at first (“It’s like being in a dream … and you all live here!” he marvels). But he fires up to reveal integrity and foresight in a galvanic monologue about the role of the critic and the inexorable links among art, humanity and liberty.
Harbour carves a soulful, amusing character out of excitable Stankevich, while in smaller roles, O’Byrne, Hamilton and Harner all suggest further developments to come. Jennifer Ehle and Martha Plimpton make vivid impressions as two of Michael’s adoring sisters. The romantic idealism of the Bakunin girls, inspired by George Sand, is poignantly echoed in the sad outcomes of their relationships.
O’Brien, his cast and creative team have set themselves a formidably high standard with “Voyage.” If they can maintain it in “Shipwreck” and “Salvage,” New York will have another theatrical epic to stand in terms of magnitude, ambition and achievement alongside such milestones as “Nicholas Nickleby” and “Angels in America.”