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The Coast of Utopia Part Three: Salvage

The melancholy coda to Tom Stoppard's ambitious trilogy bows at last. logo
Josh Hamilton, Kat Peters, Brían F. O'Byrne, Martha Plimpton,
and Ethan Hawke in The Coast of Utopia Part Three: Salvage
(© Paul Kolnik)
Now that The Coast of Utopia Part Three: Salvage, the last of Tom Stoppard's trilogy, has bowed, a verdict can finally be passed on the entire project. Despite vast amounts of talent, time, and benefactors' money having been poured diligently and extravagantly into Lincoln Center's sole Vivian Beaumont offering this season, the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

Much, much less as it happens, and as Salvage reaches its melancholy coda, the reason for the deficiency is clear. Consciously or unconsciously, Stoppard has been seduced by Thomas Carlyle's contention that "the history of the world is but the biography of great men." Wanting to examine the reasons revolutions fail and believing he could write a play with the panoramic scope of a Tolstoyan novel, Stoppard became intrigued by a handful of mid-19th-century Russian figures eager to foment radical change in the homeland they love but have fled for any number of political reasons.

First among his crusading equals is Alexander Herzen (Brían F. O'Byrne), a rich pamphleteer, who starts out on the cutting edge of the movement but sees his efforts blunted over the 35 years that The Coast of Utopia covers. Eventually, he realizes that as the advocate of a bloodless revolution, he's been relegated to what's often called "history's dustbin." While Stoppard includes other famous or once-famous personalities throughout this trilogy -- among them, Michael Bukanin (Ethan Hawke), Ivan Turgenev (Jason Butler Harner), Nicholas Ogarev (Josh Hamilton), and even Karl Marx (Adam Dannheisser) -- it's Herzen who is lifted above turbulent waters in the stunning image that opens director Jack O'Brien's swirling treatment of each play.

The sad situation, however, is that Herzen is a plodding, dour character. In Salvage, he whiles away the latter part of his life attempting to establish a broadsheet called The Bell, while also trying to keep his children-overrun household in order. While Stoppard's idea is to show how often an influential person's private life is mundane in contrast to the public life, daily routine isn't the surefire stuff of compelling dramaturgy -- even if some of it is devoted to Herzen's passionate dalliance with Ogarev's wife Natasha (Martha Plimpton) and to spirited domestic exchanges with the children's German governess, Malwida von Meysenbug (Jennifer Ehle).

Eventually, Herzen is reduced to mouthing a next-to-closing observation about "meaning" -- but the statement's mediocrity is so staggering that shocked patrons may resent being given such a piddling take-away lesson. Then Stoppard waxes worse with his final line, yet another of the prodigious symbolic utterances dropped throughout the play like petals from faded flowers.

In fairness to Stoppard, there are numerous times when his wit, insight, and sheer poetic writing shine through the banality. In one scene, Turgenev says to Herzen: "You're talking to a man who's made a literary reputation out of the Russian peasantry, and they're no different from Italian, French or German peasants. Conservatives to the marrow. Give them time and they'll be a match for any Frenchman when it comes to bourgeois aspirations." That kind of barbed talk abounds, just not nearly enough of the time.

Stoppard hasn't been supported as well as he might have been by director Jack O'Brien, certainly not as effectively as he was on the pair's last joint effort, The Invention of Love. Throughout the three plays, O'Brien allows his actors to shout their dialogue as if from the other end of a long tunnel. Moreover, O'Byrne, doing his share of decibel-abusing, is mostly undermined by his one-note (okay, two-note) role. Eventually he's as lifeless as the lank Tom Watson wigs he wears. In Salvage though, Hawke finally gets away with his bellowing now that his Bukanin has turned Falstaffian, while Ehle, Harner, and especially Plimpton seem most at home in Stoppard's diffuse world.

By the time the ambitious Coast of Utopia trilogy comes to close, the reality is that, despite nearly nine hours of playing time, Stoppard has edged no nearer his theatrical Utopia than his characters have gotten to their societal version. As my companion said as she hurriedly exited the theater: "I'd rather have just bought the t-shirt."

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