Review: Patriots on Broadway Unpacks the Power Struggle for Russia

The Crown writer Peter Morgan shifts his focus from Buckingham Palace to the Kremlin.

The Broadway company of Patriots performs at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.
(© Matthew Murphy)

An alternate title for Peter Morgan’s Patriots, now making its Broadway debut at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre following two acclaimed runs in London, might be The Tragedy of Boris Berezovsky. Morgan introduces us to the late oligarch during the boom times of the mid-90s, after he and a small circle of plutocrats had already captured much of the Russian economy in the fire sale that followed the collapse of Communism. It loosely traces his time as a political heavyweight, his elevation of an obscure KGB functionary named Vladimir Putin to the Kremlin, and, after he crosses the czar he created, his exile in the U.K. It’s a fascinating story that more westerners should know — and this neo-Shakespearean history does a decent job of conveying the basics.

Morgan, best known for the Netflix series The Crown, sticks to what he knows best, which is character-driven drama in which societal trends and economic forces mostly serve as background noise. In this “great man” approach to history, Berezovsky is the sun, a burst of energy around which all Russia revolves.

As portrayed by Michael Stuhlbarg, he is most like that son of York, Richard III: intelligent, conniving, funny, and thoroughly untrustworthy. He’s a man who speaks stirringly of liberal values, provided they benefit his bottom line. We watch in begrudging admiration as Berezovsky rallies his fellow oligarchs behind Boris Yeltsin (smiley and gargantuan Paul Kynman) during the 1996 election, imploring his bannermen, “To save the country we love. Lead the country we love. Free the country we love.” Stuhlbarg wields his plummy accent like an antique sword. All that’s missing is a horse.

Michael Stuhlbarg plays Boris Berezovsky in Peter Morgan’s Patriots, directed by Rupert Goold, at Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre.
(© Matthew Murphy)

But we also observe Berezovsky’s avarice, like when he meets “the kid” Roman Abramovich (a charmingly bashful Luke Thallon) and promises to introduce him to the right government officials to propel his oil business into the stratosphere — for a 50 percent cut of the profits. “I don’t want to sign a contract, or even a deal. Nothing on paper. Nothing traceable,” he commands the earnest young businessman. It’s an offer Abramovich can’t refuse, and one Berezovsky lives to regret when his man Putin (Will Keen), whom he hand-picks by to succeed Yeltsin, turns out to have a mind of his own.

Director Rupert Goold presents it all with typical flash and economy, quickening pulses with a musical opening that seems to feature a thousand voices (sound design and original music by Adam Cork) and blasting the upstage wall with a rapid succession of historically relevant images (video by Ash J. Woodward). Dominating the stage is a raised platform that suggests the long bar at a strip club that has been recently installed in an old brick fortress, an apt metaphor for Russia in the 90s (set by Miriam Buether). Later, it becomes a long conference table in Putin’s theater of power. Jack Knowles lights it in sinister red, with ornate crystal chandeliers rising and falling from the rafters.

Goold allows nothing to impede the forward progress of the plot — so why does it so often feel inert? Why does the story of who will lead the country with the largest stockpile of nuclear weapons feel so low stakes?

Unexpectedly, Morgan falters by being too faithful to the historical record. His almost farcical depiction the fallout between Berezovsky and Putin is how it happened: after Berezovsky used his television station to criticize Putin during the Kursk disaster, Putin ordered him to sell the station or face prosecution, and Berezovsky fled. Still, one wishes for a more extended battle of wills to pep up the second act. Berezovsky, built up to be a force of nature, proves to be little more than a summer squall.

Will Keen plays Vladimir Putin in Peter Morgan’s Patriots, directed by Rupert Goold, at Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre.
(© Matthew Murphy)

Most disappointingly, Morgan declines to unmask the man without a face who still rules Russia, even though Putin undoubtedly undergoes the most dramatic character arc of the play. Keen gives Putin a working-class accent and clipped diction when we first meet him, suggesting a shy career bureaucrat. By the end, he is the cold-eyed living statue we all know from the photos, but we never get much of a sense of how he got there. While Morgan gives Berezovsky a series of flashback scenes to his life as a mathematician, we get nothing of the sort for his nemesis. We have no idea how the insecurities and desires of little Vova transformed him into Putin — which is, I suspect, how he likes it.

Our one hint comes in the second act, when Keen silently stares into the mirror, trying on a series of tough poses. Later, his hand tremors during a final phone call with Berezovsky, but his voice remains steady. This Putin is bluffing for his life, which is a convincing choice. But there’s just so much Keen can do without the assistance of the script, and with a playwright who fails to fully use his poetic license.

It’s a similar tale for the supporting characters. Alex Hurt delivers a powerful performance as KGB officer turned Berezovsky wingman Alexander Litvinenko, and Stella Baker is stellar as his wife, the only truly sympathetic character. But too few words are spared to explore their motivations, where patriotism ends and self-interest begins, in Morgan’s race to unfurl plot point after plot point.

In a book, like Amy Knight’s excellent forthcoming history, The Kremlin’s Noose, it’s a thriller. Onstage, it’s a recipe for information overload — a treatment that is both crowded and shallow.

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Final performance: June 23, 2024