So Far, So Good

Illustration by Wes DuvallPhoto: Paul Kolnik/Courtesy of Philip Rinaldi

C oming from any other playwright, the idea behind The Coast of Utopia would sound preposterous; from Tom Stoppard, it’s practically routine. Having made the second law of thermodynamics heartbreaking (Arcadia) and turned logical positivism into farce (Jumpers), he now proposes to dramatize 30 years of the intellectual life of nineteenth-century Russia—an epic that runs eight hours over three nights and requires a cast of 44. Would someone intent on parodying his style dream up a premise so sprawling, so erudite, so … Stoppardian?

“Words are become deeds. Thoughts are deeds,” says Alexander Herzen, the revolutionary at the center of the tale. Already you can see why this material appeals to Sir Tom. Since Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead 40 years ago, he’s been knocked for writing plays in which thought trumps action: lots of thinking and arguing, the complaint goes, but nothing to show for it. In Herzen, Turgenev, and their circle, he’s found people whose thinking and arguing did nothing less than help create a modern Russia. Born in a repressive intellectual backwater—the “Caliban of Europe,” they call the motherland here—these young men gave the country a new sense of itself. Unwittingly, they also set the stage for the Bolsheviks and the horrors that followed.

But all of that is still a long way off at the end of Voyage, the first part of the trilogy, which has just opened at Lincoln Center. The incompleteness of the story makes responding to it a bit tricky. I skipped the plays in London four years ago, not wanting to spoil the surprise before they reached New York. Since the second and third parts won’t appear for another few weeks (to be followed by some daylong marathons, in which the action unfolds in something like real time), any reactions at this point have to be provisional; choices that look brilliant may turn out to be otherwise, and vice versa. On the bright side, how often do you get to respond to a play while it’s still in the process of being staged, particularly by a company as loaded with talent as this one?

Already one of the show’s virtues is clear: the beautiful vastness of the thing. For a mix of fiscal and creative reasons, plays lately tend to be pinched, tiny—a lot of love triangles in square rooms. But Voyage promises, from its earliest moments, to have a reach as broad as its subject. After a glimpse of Herzen (Brían F. O’Byrne) deep in thought on an elevated chair—picture the Lincoln Memorial in pain, an apt image for a man whose agitation helped liberate millions of serfs—we see the serfs themselves. An army of actors and costumed mannequins appears ranged across the stage. At the sight of this, the audience burst into applause. Why shouldn’t we? After all the solo plays we’ve sat through, this huge human spectacle is its own reward, no matter what comes next.

Of course, epic sweep comes a bit easier than intimate gestures on the vast steppe of the Beaumont stage. Director Jack O’Brien knows his way around the place, having mounted a four-hour condensation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV here a few years back. So far, he seems less sure-handed this time. Much of Act One concerns the Bakunin clan—principally the future anarchist Michael (Ethan Hawke), but also his landowning father (Richard Easton), serf-battering mother (Amy Irving), and four sisters. The scenes of family life on a country estate seem designed to evoke Chekhov, if punched up by Stoppardian wit. But O’Brien’s use of a wide revolve takes a toll on Stoppard’s comedy of entrances and exits. Plenty of jokes are clearer in the script than onstage.

Stoppard tends to use domestic scenes like these to lighten up the heavy thinking in his plays: Consider Jumpers, which leavens its three hours of philosophical debate with marital spats and stripping. In Voyage, the pattern’s reversed. Stoppard delves into the romantic troubles of the Bakunin girls, who seek, reject, and are rejected by an array of suitors. But it’s never clear why we ought to care about their heartache, despite the best efforts of Jennifer Ehle and Martha Plimpton to persuade us. Some wonderfully scandalous love affairs are due to arrive later in the trilogy, so Stoppard may yet recover the light touch for relationships he’s shown lately. For the time being, it’s a relief to leave the Bakunins’ personal lives for the simpler ground of Kantian metaphysics.

The fact that those philosophical debates are already riveting bodes very well for Parts Two and Three. In the play’s best scene, Vissarion Belinsky (Billy Crudup), the splenetic young literary critic, treats the family of his new friend Bakunin to a diatribe about the failures of Russian culture. “When philosophers start talking like architects, get out while you can—chaos is coming,” he says, prophetically. “When they start laying down rules for beauty, blood in the streets is from that moment inevitable.” But the main intellectual push of Voyage comes from Bakunin, whose boundless energy and knack for exhausting his funds give Stoppard a chance to humanize the bunch: “Is there nobody who sees that the future of philosophy in Russia hangs on lending me a few miserable rubles?”

Crudup and Hawke have charisma to spare, though they both suffer from a slight case of histrionics here: the former twitchy and overeager to show Belinsky’s ungainly lower-class anxiety, the latter shouty and too outsize. It’ll take another installment or so to judge if they’d have been better off switching roles, a thought that crossed my mind here. (It also remains to be seen whether the normally mesmerizing O’Byrne will find his old dynamism, which seemed curiously lacking.) Still, it’s a testament to what Stoppard is achieving that in spite of the occasional missed joke or strained scene, if they’d told me I could have stuck around after the final curtain for the start of Part Two, I’d have been delighted to make it an all-night affair.

If you think getting an epic trilogy off the ground in New York is heavy going, try staging one in Moscow. Stoppard is supervising an upcoming production of The Coast of Utopia there, and, he says, he believes that “now that political life hasn’t turned out to be quite the way they thought, the idea of a radical opposition is interesting to Russian audiences.” The only problem is moving from rehearsals to, you know, an opening. “They started in February, broke off for the summer, and they’ll just rehearse their way into Christmas and into the new year. They’re saying, ‘Well, we’ll see what we’ve got in January, and maybe we’ll open it in February.’ ” Now it’s set for April.

The Coast of Utopia: Voyage, Part I
By Tom Stoppard. Vivian Beaumont Theater, Lincoln Center. Through March 6.

So Far, So Good