The Coast of Utopia Part One - Voyage
The opening part of Tom Stoppard's trilogy about Russian intellectuals is visually stunnning, puzzlingly directed, and poorly acted.
Actually, that's not entirely true. There are the myriad sources through which Stoppard thumbed in preparation for his fictional account of several prominent figures involved in fomenting the turbulence of pre-revolutionary Russia from 1833 to1870; they're just not at an audience's fingertips.
Stoppard has chosen to follow the mercurial and unsettled Michael Bakunin (Ethan Hawke) in order to tell his panoramic tale of the gathering Russian storm. Over the trilogy's many years, the Hegel-quoting Michael -- who switches philosophy allegiances as if picking up and discarding self-help gurus -- will come into regular contact with thinker Alexander Herzen (Brían F. O'Byrne), literary critic Vissarion Belinsky (Billy Crudup), doomed philosopher Nicholas Stankevich (David Harbour), pamphleteer Nicholas Polevoy (David Pittu), poet-novelist Ivan Turgenev (Jason Butler Harner), fellow aristocrat-revolutionary Nicholas Ogarov (Josh Hamilton), and, in a brief glimpse, the great poet Alexander Pushkin (Adam Dannheisser).
The playwright begins his opus at Premukhino, the aristocratic north-of-Moscow estate owned by Michael's serf lord father Alexander (Richard Easton). Also residing there in troubled splendor -- and wearing costume designer Catherine Zuber's gorgeous finery -- are his wife (Amy Irving) and four daughters, Liubov (Jennifer Ehle), Varenka (Martha Plimpton), Tatiana (Kellie Overbey), and Alexandra (Annie Purcell). Meanwhile, Michael drops in occasionally to agitate his father and meddle in his sisters' futures.
In the first act, Stoppard creates a series of novelistic scenes that take place exclusively at Premukhino, where life is easy-go for everyone but the oppressed serfs. In act two, he shifts to Moscow and St. Petersburg during the same time period. The sequences piling chockablock on one another (seven scenes in the first act, and 14 scenes in the second) are intermittently lively; but the overall effect is that of missing crucial connections because they've been jettisoned from the novel that never was.
This is Stoppard, of course, and that means a helping of witty lines and speeches. A second-act diatribe handed to Belinsky about the necessity of Russian artists gets applause: "When the word Russia makes you think of great writers first and foremost, the job will be done," he cries. But if the Stoppard wit is dispensed, it isn't dispensed generously. The number of truly affecting lines can probably be counted on the fingers of two hands. It's almost as if the usually masterful playwright has decided that he better set aside his revered cleverness because it's distracted him from saying anything deathlessly important about humanity.
Where Stoppard has lucked out is in the physical production that Bob Crowley and Scott Pask have designed. It's full of eye-popping details lighted intricately by Brian MacDevitt. Not the least of these attractions is a tall, crystalline winter palace hanging at the back of the stage over a group of skaters. (The reflecting floor on which members of the 36-strong cast glide is a holdover from Crowley's set for Stoppard's Invention of Love.)
Another stunning image in a non-stop series of stunning images is a mass of veiled statues representing Russia's serf population. During the first act they remain visible through upstage scrims -- and they are returned to their ominous ranks in the second act as reminders that downtrodden hordes don't obligingly disappear.
Where Stoppard hasn't been so fortunate is Jack O'Brien's puzzling direction. Moreover, a stellar cast has been rounded up to behave decidedly non-stellarly. Hawke, so spectacular last season in Hurlyburly, brings no finesse to Michael; from start to finish, he acts like a class-room cut-up. With the exception of Plimpton and Easton, the rest of the Bakunin family -- all of whom are said to speak five languages -- shout at each other like thespians in a community-theater Chekhov production. So does Crudup, who makes Belinsky seem like just a big loudmouth. On the plus side, Harner, who appears rather briefly in this part of the trilogy, manages to look as if he understands subtlety as an acting technique.
Stoppard has written many impressive theater pieces in his long career. While his accomplishments may be genuinely Arcadian, at the moment, they only skirt Utopia's elusive coast.