'Patriots' review — Russian history goes from the world stage to the Broadway stage

Read our review of Patriots on Broadway, an award-winning play from London written by The Crown creator Peter Morgan and starring Michael Stuhlbarg and Will Keen.

Kyle Turner
Kyle Turner

Patriots, the new play by Peter Morgan and directed by Rupert Goold, runs less on watching billionaire Boris Berezovsky (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Vladimir Putin (Will Keen) jockey for power and more on irony. The show thrums along as Berezovsky, bent on making his mother Russia alert to the infinite possibilities of the world beyond Soviet rule (read: mostly Western capitalism), spreads his money and influence around just enough to exert control over his country's future.

These actions include convincing Putin, a former KGB intelligence officer, to accept a tacit alliance with Berezovsky and his government cronies. He eventually becomes the heir apparent to President Boris Yeltsin, and the rest, as they say…

It’s a nasty joke when all the punchlines orbit around the absurdity of watching a relatively meek, inexpressive agent of Russia’s intelligence become one of the most frightening and dangerous men currently in power. Morgan’s Wikipedia-esque play does its best to track the perilous tango between oligarchy and politics, but it’s built around the assumption that it’s amusing and ironic that one man who created a monster got chewed up and spit out by it, and the rest of us have to pay.

It’s curious that Morgan depicts Putin as a man whose ambitions and cunning stays under wraps, Keen playing him with smaller gestures opposite Stuhlbarg’s heavily gesticulatory performance. But here, rather than a man who’s biding his time to get to a place where he can rule without consequence, Morgan’s Putin really is made by this version of Berezovsky, only intermittently trying to assert his own agency, but basically molded into something that his maker loses control of.

It’s an easily digestible version of history, possibly problematic in its vision that Berezovsky, hungry only for power, is the only person with autonomy until the world of his making no longer has a use for him.

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Patriots summary

In the mid-1990s, Russian billionaire Boris Berezovsky uses his influence to change the course of Russian history, as the Berlin Wall fell and gave rise to new opportunities. The former mathematician who studied rational and irrational decision-making has turned to economic and political power-playing. Out of it, he tries to craft a political agent that will do his bidding. That person turns out to be Vladimir Putin.

What to expect at Patriots

To Patriots’s credit, director Rupert Goold enlivens a mediocre play into a fairly entertaining spectacle of lights and projection. The evening is lit mostly in red and the stage acts as both a (political) platform and, with swivel chairs all around, a pub where songs from the country’s past echo throughout. Goold makes the show bright and shiny, making every dramatic beat into an exclamation point in Russian red.

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What audiences are saying about Patriots

  • “Realistic, Terrifying, Clever, Enchanting, Absorbing.” -
  • Show-Score user Judy 305054
  • “An extraordinary performance on how [Vladimir] Putin came to power and what happened to those who'd helped him get there.” - Show-Score user Alyssa 8198
  • “Fascinating Political Drama w great Acting,Writing & Set Design. [Michael Stuhlbarg] gives a Tony worthy performance. This is a Must See.” - Show-Score user Hara

Read more audience reviews of Patriots on Show-Score.

Who should see Patriots

  • If you’re interested in current events, particularly Russian history, Morgan paints the past and present as being tied up with ambition, money, and power, and tries to interrogate the meaning of loving your country.
  • For fans of Peter Morgans’s previous creations, from The Crown on Netflix to the movie The Queen, which netted Helen Mirren an Academy Award, the dramatizer of recent history turns his eye to another empire in its last years as it shifts its goals in the modern world.
  • Michael Stuhlbarg gives a vivid, memorable performance as Berezovsky, gruff and voracious, unafraid to offend, his wingspan wide as he flies too close to the sun.

Learn more about Patriots on Broadway

Although Peter Morgan’s telling of the rise of Putin and Russian oligarchs feels a bit oversimplified and leaves most characters one- or two-dimensional, Rupert Goold’s electric direction elevates the material to make history feel like a blur of lights and sound.

Learn more and get Patriots tickets on New York Theatre Guide. Patriots is at the Barrymore Theatre through June 23.

Additional Patriots content

Photo credit: Patriots on Broadway. (Photos by Matthew Murphy)

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