British playwright Tom Stoppard has taken on nothing less than the sweep of 19th-century Russian history, encompassing the prerevolutionary yearnings of a group of the country's intellectuals, for the subject of his vast drama, "The Coast of Utopia," running through May 13 at Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont.
The first part of the trilogy, "Voyage," which opened in late November, literally set the stage for the musings, both public and private, of the young cohort of Moscow University students whom we will watch grow to maturity and disillusionment from 1833 to the late 1860s as the plays unfold. Unlike Ivan Turgenev, who will become the great writer, the characters Michael Bakunin, Nicolas Stankevich, Vissarion Belinsky, Alexander Herzen, and Nicholas Ogarev will be familiar only to history buffs. Yet it was their questioning of the status quo in the repressive czarist society that led the way to the more concrete actions of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin.
Part II, "Shipwreck," which opened in late December, is now being performed in repertory with "Voyage." When "Salvage," the third play, opens in mid-February, it will be possible to attend the entire nine-hour cycle on certain days (with some meal breaks).
Under the superb direction of Jack O'Brien, who has established a cinematic flow to the confluence of time and shifting locales, 40 actors take on more than 70 roles, many of them reoccurring throughout the three plays. Film and stage star Ethan Hawke plays Bakunin, the antic aristocrat who turns into an anarchist; Brian O'Byrne is cast as Herzen, the pragmatic socialist; and Billy Crudup, the literary critic, Belinsky.
The women, at least in "Voyage," are frozen in the backwaters of social consequence, reminiscent of Chekhov's despairing heroines. By Part II, however, as they move from Russia into European exile with the men, they become free spirits, reveling in the heady milieu of the artistic and expatriate communities. Jennifer Ehle plays Bakunin's ailing sister in Part I, and centers Part II as Herzen's wife, Natalie. Amy Irving is cast as Bakunin's mother in "Voyage," but is even more memorable in the cameo role of a fallen woman, Maria Ogarev, in "Shipwreck."
Stoppard's tumbling mass of words, the overall excellence of the actors, plus the adroit change in roles for some of them – and the breathtaking and symbolic set-pieces designed by Bob Crowley and Scott Pask – lead the audience through the ever-shifting geography and progression of years. The most moving aspects of the events explore the characters' private lives and personal relationships, despite the grandeur of the philosophical ideas they espouse. The reoccurring visual image that remains from play to play – a mass of faceless human beings, lurking at the rear of the stage – is a visual prophecy of the forces these comrades will launch; however, they do not survive to see the Utopia of their dreams. Caution: A viewer must do some homework to fully appreciate the back story that animates Stoppard's vaulting scheme. Grade: A