As the second part of The Coast of Utopia begins, Tom Stoppard’s artists and revolutionaries learn that a new word has been coined for them: intelligentsia. Don’t imagine they’re the killjoys in the study carrels, though. History tells us—and Stoppard shows us, at epic length—they’re lusty, virile, occasionally violent young men dedicated to creating a modern Russia and, whenever possible, screwing each other’s wives. They do plenty of both in Shipwreck, the satisfying new follow-up to Voyage. Yet even at the six-hour mark, Stoppard still has a whole play to go, which means it’s still too soon to judge how well he’s brought the hard-thinking studs of nineteenth-century Russia to the stage.
What’s perfectly clear in this installment—and continues to provide one of the best reasons to see these plays—is that Stoppard’s roles are making extraordinary demands of some very fine actors. If New York were full of theaters doing ambitiously lavish long-form classics in repertory, that might not seem so remarkable. For the city we actually inhabit—unambitious, underfinanced, dully sequential—the eight-hour trilogy offers a rare chance to watch actors in extremis: playing long roles, playing multiple roles in different plays (or the same play), stretching the limits of their depth and range. Watching a cast face down a challenge can be its own satisfaction; as the trilogy wears on, the challenges are getting gladiatorial.
In Voyage, the company was led by two gifted and charismatic actors showing occasional signs of strain. Billy Crudup was a bundle of twitches as the lowborn, socially awkward literary critic Belinsky, and Ethan Hawke shouted his way through the dangerously charismatic young anarchist Bakunin. But as they turn up in Paris in the first act here, waiting for the unrest of 1848 to begin, their performances are transformed. Racing around the stage waving the red flag of revolution, Hawke has found a way to make Bakunin both more menacing and more ridiculous. Crudup, meanwhile, has toned down the ailing Belinsky’s jitters, giving him a genuinely tragic stature: Watch how he gives his protégé, Turgenev, a quietly majestic benediction.
It’s gratifying when actors ease into their roles this way, but sometimes the reverse occurs, and a role begins to better suit its performer. In Part One, Brían F. O’Byrne, usually the most mesmerizing actor on whatever stage he inhabits, seemed oddly muted as the patrician revolutionary Alexander Herzen; the philosophical speeches, even when impassioned, felt distant, abstract. In the second act here, when Stoppard shifts from historical fanfare to domestic ballad, O’Byrne’s old allure returns. Herzen and his wife (exquisite Jennifer Ehle) set up a household with his best friend, the German poet Herwegh (David Harbour), who’s been cuckolding him. The inevitable confrontation may just be old-fashioned melodrama, but Herzen’s bitterness and fury help us see what makes O’Byrne great. Though some actors lean on a rich voice or effortless poise, his most valuable asset may be his tenacity—the ability to grip a role and not let go. Here, finally, are scenes he can dig his nails into; I hope they’re not the last.
But this isn’t just your garden-variety star-saturated historical drama. As Stoppard’s tale moves from the hopefulness of Voyage to the disillusion of Shipwreck, the action sweeps up enough major and minor figures to require all sorts of double-casting, even in a company of 44. The great joy of these plays, for me, has been watching director Jack O’Brien draw sharply different performances from actors whose work I’ve admired. In Shipwreck, David Pittu plays only two small butler roles, but his supercilious Frenchman and lyrical Italian are both indelible. After a brief appearance as a governess in Voyage, Bianca Amato is a minor revelation this time as Herwegh’s wife, conveying the full sadness of a neglected spouse even in the way she breathes.
Best of all is Richard Easton. After collapsing onstage in Voyage and returning from the hospital three weeks later to play a leading role as Bakunin’s imposing father, he’s delightful here in exactly the opposite kind of part, a three-minute turn as a bumbling minor official. At all-day marathons of the plays, you’ll see some performers like him in two, three, five different roles. Don’t call them mere actors: They’re troupers.