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The Coast of Utopia Part Two: Shipwreck

The second part of Tom Stoppard's trilogy boasts many praiseworthy elements, but the ambitious project seems to be falling short of its reach.

Brían F. O'Byrne and Josh Hamilton
in The Coast of Utopia Part Two: Shipwreck
(© Paul Kolnik)
Because it's by Tom Stoppard, you're convinced there must be something to cling to in Shipwreck, the second part of his Coast of Utopia trilogy now being given an extravagant Lincoln Center production. And, yes, the play boasts many praiseworthy Stoppardian elements, but on the whole, the ambitious project increasingly seems to be falling short of its reach.

Since few contemporary playwrights dream as big as the always politically engaged Stoppard, more power to him. Here, he wants to register his conclusions on the questionable success and, more predictably, ultimate failure of revolutions as valid measures leading to civilization's advancement. Over nine hours, he surveys the lives of a number of real-life 19th-century Russian thinkers as they discuss -- often in palatial splendor far from home -- how best to bring equality to their countrymen.

During Shipwreck, Stoppard -- who gets high marks for research on the vast subject -- concentrates on Alexander Herzen (Brían F. O'Byrne), a socialist whose theories are in contract to those of Michael Bukanin (Ethan Hawke), the would-be anarchist who's the central character in the preceding Voyage. It's Herzen who's seen at the outset of both parts ruminating on a pedestal above a symbolic sea of change and who succinctly expresses Stoppard's conclusions. About reaching some elusive humane ideal, he says, "[t]here is no such place, that's why it's called Utopia."

Stoppard is to be commended for the abundant stunning situations he's imagined. For one example, there's a scene where five characters -- three in one location, two in another -- are juxtaposed to recreate the famous tableau in Edouard Manet's "Dejeuner sur l'Herbe." And, not surprisingly, witty dialogue glints throughout the enterprise. Asked whether he was betrayed in his anarchic plots, Bukanin says, "No, I ran out of revolutions." Herzen, talking about his background. says, "Being half Russian and half German, at heart I'm Polish."

But extensive research, indelible tableaux, and scintillating lines backed by intellectual probing don't add up to a satisfying work. Continuing his fact-based fictional study of Herzen, Stoppard places him in the context of his motherly but flirtatious wife Natalie (Jennifer Ehle), and their sons Sasha (Beckett Melville) and Kolya (August Gladstone), who's deaf in part for metaphorical purposes. Among the Herzens' closest friends are German poet George Herwegh (David Harbour) and wife Emma (Bianca Amato). There's a messy love affair between Herwegh and Natalie as well as a less messy one between Natalie and gal pal Natasha Tuchkov (Martha Plimpton).

Yet, Stoppard isn't in control of the material. Commenting on the short-lasting effects of revolutions, near-revolutions and proposed revolutions, he seems to contend that revolutions fail because the people responsible for fomenting them are too callow to bring them off. But is that what he truly means to convey? Also, before Arcadia and The Invention of Love, the familiar charge against Stoppard was that his head overrules his heart. With The Coast of Utopia, the charge can be made anew.

To be sure, some of the novelistic script's deficiencies are compensated for by the eye-popping production. Set designers Bob Crowley and Scott Pask supply startling stage pictures that include an alley of Paris street lamps at the end of which stands a dazzling white obelisk. Hung over many of the Paris gabfests is a splendid chandelier that says plenty about the well-heeled intelligentsia ballyhooing revolutions. Costume designer Catherine Zuber adds to the ironic implications through the ladies' finery and the gentlemen's smoking jackets.

While these elements, enhanced by Kenneth Posner's lighting, treat the eye, the performances aren't a sufficient treat for the ear. Too many of the actors -- the cast includes Billy Crudup, David Harbour, Jason Butler Harner, and Josh Hamilton in other leading roles -- declaim their speeches as if fearful that Stoppard's important prose will be lost on the deep Vivian Beaumont stage. Certainly, some of the blame falls on director Jack O'Brien, who pays more attention to the big picture than the revelatory detail. It almost seems accidental that Richard Easton as an emissary, Amy Irving as a bohemian model, and David Pittu in two virtual walk-ons make more favorable impressions than the show's stars.

During one of the salon scenes, the doomed essayist Vassarion Belinsky dallies with a children's puzzle and says, "I can't fit the pieces together to make a square." In response, the author Ivan Turgenev suggests, "Perhaps it's a circle." The exchange is only one of the numerous symbolic utterances that dot Stoppard's script like iceberg tips. But this one is also emblematic of the author's conundrum: He's trying to make a square of something that perhaps should be a circle.

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