by Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.
The Coast of Utopia--A Trilogy
by Tom Stoppard
Directed by Jack O'Brien
Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont
Reviewed January 22, 2007 by Margaret Croyden
The most serious play of the season is without question Tom Stoppard's "The Coast of Utopia," a trilogy now playing in repertory. Each part can be seen separately, or in one sitting later in the month. As we know, Stoppard is accepted by the cognoscenti as one of Britain's most important playwrights. To be sure he has a huge body of work: dramas, comedies, TV scripts, and movies but "Utopia" is his opus magnum. Not too many writers would have the nerve, the temperament, or the confidence to embark on such an ambitious enterprise. A success in London despite mixed notices, "Utopia" was enough of an inducement for the Lincoln Center guys--Andre Bishop and Bernie Gersten--to bring it to New York. A giant production, the play requires more than 40 actors, elaborate scenery and costumes, original music, extravagant lighting, and unique theatrical effects. The scheduling of the rehearsals and repertory performances would drive any management crazy. So it is with great expectations that one went to see this much publicized event.
Apparently Tom Stoppard has always been interested in Russian history for he has devoted his three plays to it. In Part One we meet a group of young Russian revolutionary intellectuals who grew out of the Decemberist movement which aimed to overthrow the Russian Czar, only to be decimated. They gather together at the estate of Alexander Bakunin, father of Michael, soon to be the well known anarchist. The group consists of "thinkers" who represent various social and political positions in Russia in the early 1800's. There is the brazen anarchist Michael Bakunin, a youthful philanderer and sponger (he believes his father, the aristocratic landowner, is too stingy); his three sisters who aimlessly meander about with minor and uninteresting problems; the young and later famous Alexander Herzen, a liberal social democrat who will dominate the next two parts of the trilogy, although he is somewhat in the background here; the young Turgenev, unsure of his place in the world; the working class radical Belinsky, a brilliant literary critic, who later tries his hand at publishing, and will eventually bring out Turgenev. Various other friends of Bakunin wander in and out and (due to the sloppy writing) are hard to properly identify.
And that one of the problems. The story is difficult to follow. In fact the management must have realized that; they handed out background notes detailing the story. One of the problems is that characters enter, give their view point as if running for election and exit, so that most of the characters are indistinguishable. The talk is heavy: they discuss the miserable life of the peasants, the nastiness of the governing classes, the vacuity of Russian writing, the ignorance of the population, and their chagrin at being considered Russian barbarians. Which what the West thought of Russians in those days. Though the conversations are peppered with noble ideas and opinions of how to ameliorate the miserable conditions of the Russians, nothing is actually dramatized on stage. The action is static. We never see the life of the abused serfs. Instead in the background is a lineup of veiled mannequins, covered by a flimsy scrim. They stand there, perpetually planted in the ground as it were, never moving: here are the serfs--an obvious symbol. And a clever device (but a cheesy one) that brings them into the picture, a bit, without having to dramatize their lives.
Though I admire Tom Stoppard for trying to write an epic drama about an important era in Russian history--though most people are unfamiliar with the names that came across the footlights--I feel sorry that the effort did not result in a stunning theatrical experience. Most of his characters are talking heads, scholars lecturing us--for three hours.
The chief difficulty is Stoppard's desire to telegraph his ideas to the audience instead of incorporating them into flesh and blood characters. Granted, that is easier said than done--particularly if you are Tom Stoppard who loves to show off his facility with the English language. That the program listed all the books he consulted when writing his play does in fact indicate the thesis quality of his work. Less scholarship and more heart would have been better.
About the production. Which was stunning to be sure. Because there was so much talk, the director Jack O'Brien cleverly moved the actors around to pep up the work. And the excellent designer Bob Crowley went all out to give us something to look at, which was a relief. Still the total effect seemed slightly overblown and very Broadwayish in contradiction to the subject, although O'Brien tried hard to attain a Chekhov quality to the family scenes.
About the cast: Eric Hawkins, the star of Part One, playing Michael Bakunin, has a good deal of energy, but his loud shouting and his dashing about the stage with little purpose made him seem inconsequential. Bakunin was actually a serious radical anarchist who influenced all of Europe. That he was also a sponger may be true. But Stoppard chose to emphasize that side of him, and Hawkins played him like a vacuous American hippie. Richard Easton in the role of Alexander Bakunin , the aristocratic head of the household and part of the prevailing order, was the most convincing. Billy Crudup playing Belinsky, the critic, had the longest speeches in the play, but he is a fine actor and was indeed equal to his task. The least interesting were the women who all looked alike, spoke in squeaky voices, and wore nice costumes.
Although Stoppard didn't produce a flawless work, the ideas of these long forgotten intellectuals did encourage thought. It would be wonderful if Stoppard, when writing a serious play, could combine his love of English and his overwrought verbiage with more human feeling to create a genuine theatrical experience. More after I see Part Two and Three.
Margaret Croyden's is the author of "Conversations with Peter Brook, 1970-2000" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Margaret Croyden's most recent book is "Conversations With Peter Brook, 1970-2000" published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
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