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.