The Coast of Utopia - 2 Shipwreck

  • Date:
    December 1, 2006
    Review by:
    Barbara Mehlman

    'This is a combined review of Parts 1 & 2'

    Tom Stoppard is no madman, though one has to wonder about a brilliant playwright's good sense when he deliberately writes a trilogy about Russia, writers and revolution that spans 30 years, and runs approximately eight hours.

    But 'Coast of Utopia,' which does indeed take a third of a day to perform, is utterly absorbing and demands neither pre-requisites nor prior knowledge, contrary to the opinion of one reviewer in New York's self-proclaimed Newspaper of Record.

    Stoppard was so distressed that said reviewer had come up with a list of pre-theater reading that he wrote in a Letter to the Editor:

    "My blood ran cold when I saw your informed and kindly meant roundup of sources for my trilogy, 'The Coast of Utopia.' The headline on the list of titles, 'Required Pre-theater Reading,' should be interpreted as 'Recommended Post-Theater Reading.' What kind of madman would write a play that requires the audience to read a dozen books in advance? Come as you are; you'll be fine." (New York Times, Nov. 28, 2006)

    And you will, although you will need to pay attention. 'Utopia' is so full of ideas, debatable issues, and literary and art references -- both visual and verbal -- that you'll be rapidly combing through your storehouse of knowledge to recall the information you collected so long ago to relate it to what your hearing.

    After a stunning opening of a roiling sea that miraculously gets sucked away into the bowels of the theater, we see, though barely, the ghostlike images of oppressed Russian serfs standing behind a scrim where they remain for the entire production as the aging Bakunin and his large family have dinner.

    An exuberant Michael Bakunin, the young son, has just returned from France with talk of revolution, political upheaval, and the infuriating reality that there's nothing worthwhile to read in Russia except Pushkin. In France, he remarks, they educate women and have great writers. "We are poor, behind-the-times Russia," he laments.

    Michael discusses this further with his friend Belinsky, a magazine publisher, editor and critic who understands that in a repressive society, such as czarist Russia, writers matter. "We have no literature!" Our country is backward, he says, a mystery to the world, and what he wants is for people to think of great writers when they think of Russia.

    What an interesting way to define a country. Say Russia and we think Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. France? Sartre, Camus, Rousseau. England? Shakespeare, of course, as well as Wilde and Shaw and many more. America? Mark Twain, Hemingway -- John Grisham and Danielle Steele. (Shiver and shudder.)

    Lest you think, though, that you're in for a long siege of unrelieved intellectual banter, you'll be pleased to know that Stoppard hasn't lost sight of his job of providing entertainment at the same time that he presents high-minded themes.

    In a recent talk with a group of Drama Desk members, Stoppard pointed out that, "no matter the subject matter of a play, it's always about how people behave towards each other, how they feel about each other." And this is borne out in the first two plays as everyone's personal lives are embroidered onto the complex fabric of ideas that permeate the entire production.

    We witness the effects of Belinsky's tuberculosis, the death of Alexander Herzen's young son, the affair of his wife with the German poet Herwegh, and the forced idleness of all, exiled to France with nothing to do after the new Czar comes to power. Yet, the curious thing is that knowing all this, you really don't care. Or at least, I didn't.

    Mostly, I was fascinated by al the ideas, the poetry of Stoppard's writing, and the elegance of the staging. The huge stage is devoid of walls to define place. Instead, furniture and props are carried on and off, arranged according to Stoppard's and director Jack O'Brien's visions. The actors in an outdoor scene are placed -- and dressed -- to recreate Manet's 'Dejeuner sur l'Herbe'; a scene of revolutionary violence recreates Delacroix's "Liberty Leading the People."

    The cast -- Ethan Hawke, Brian F. O'Byrne, Richard Easton, Jennifer Ehle, Martha Plimpton, Amy Irving, and Billy Crudup -- are all brilliant, and give life and vitality to a script that could easily get mired down in ideological mud.

    I've not yet seen Part 3 but despite my detachment from the characters, I'm eager to see the last installment.


    What the press had to say.....

    BEN BRANTLEY of the NEW YORK TIMES: �As always with Mr. Stoppard, dialogue... opens into startling splendor like a peacock preening its tail." & "Far more than in 'Voyage,' a single character dominates 'Shipwreck.' That�s Herzen, a writer and solidly reflective figure amid the flux. Like that of many Stoppard heroes, his role is more reactive than active. Yet Mr. O�Byrne, one of Broadway�s finest actors ('Frozen,' 'Doubt,' 'Shining City'), never seems boringly passive. He makes Herzen�s philosophical evolution as much a matter of feeling as of thought." & "It�s the collision of thought with feeling, of tidy intellect with the chaos of life, that generates such blazing theatrical heat."

    JOE DZIEMIANOWICZ of the NEW YORK DAILY NEWS: "The tight focus makes for an accessible and engaging ride, as does the fact that love is as much a part of the story as philosophy and politics." & The star of the show is the production itself. Director Jack O'Brien and his designers have made Stoppard's heady and sometimes windy drama a tour de force that is rich with unforgettable images: the Place de la Concorde before, during and after a revolt; a grand chandelier in a Paris flat that glows with excess; leafy trees quivering in unison, as if forecasting a storm. On 'Utopia's' glossy, jet-black stage, under Kenneth Posner's spellbinding lighting, images pop with astounding clarity. It struck me: I'm used to HDTV. O'Brien and company have crafted high-definition theater."

    CLIVE BARNES of THE NEW YORK POST: "Although the plays so far are generally well-acted, the production has yet to have the thrust and grandeur of the original production (London), though the richly imaginative scenery by Bob Crowley and Scott Pask makes up for much. In the final count, the trilogy unfolding at Lincoln Center becomes unforgettable and unmissable, an experience of life as much as an experience of art. "

    MICHAEL SOMMERS of STAR-LEDGER: "Staged with energy, fluidity and more than 30 actors by Jack O'Brien, 'Shipwreck' is not quite as visually spectacular as 'Voyage.' An exception is the Place de la Concorde in Paris as masterfully stylized in a forced perspective of monumental statuary." & "Led by Ehle's conflicted, deeply felt Natalie, women assume greater prominence in this segment of the trilogy, their influence lending some heart -- for good or ill -- to the relentlessly cerebral preoccupations of the menfolk."

    JACQUES LE SOURD of THE JOURNAL NEWS "Sometimes intermission is our favorite part of a play. With 'Shipwreck,' it's the curtain calls, though you will have to wait two hours and 40 minutes to see them. It is certainly the most theatrical moment of the evening. And it is unforgettable. The director who planned every step of it, and choreographed the sometimes clotted hours that come before it, is Jack O'Brien. O'Brien has a finely tuned sense of drama, that serves him well in staging the densest Stoppard drama or the lightest piece of fluff, like 'The Full Monty.' "

    ELYSA GARDNER of USA TODAY: "Jack O'Brien's robust direction and Bob Crowley and Scott Pask's stunning set design serve everyone well. True, Stoppard's script would sound glorious if recited by students in a dingy classroom, but to see such style and substance merge with spectacle is a rare treat, on Broadway or anywhere."

    LINDA WINER of NEWSDAY: "Jack O'Brien's astonishing, visually stupendous production has further tightened its grip with ever more engrossing tales of the privileged young Russian thinkers who began the sweep of massive social change." & "The ice sculpture of Moscow was the wow-moment of 'Voyage.' Here it is the Place de la Concorde in Paris, before and after the bloody fires of revolt, with marble horses on either side of the wide boulevard that appears to stretch for miles."

    ROBERT FELDBERG of THE RECORD: "Some of the speeches are eloquent, but there are also dry, informational patches, which Stoppard tries to enliven with his playful wit. The humor, though, is often contrived, undercutting what's being said. Calling Karl Marx a 'townie' because he disdains rural peasants, is funny, but also rather jarring." & "While director Jack O'Brien has fashioned several lovely scenes, there's a lurking sense that we're watching a bunch of idle rich guys -- most of the main characters are far too wealthy to have to work -- hanging out and engaging in intellectual bull sessions."

    ERIC GRODE of the NEW YORK SUN: "Mr. Stoppard spends down some of the considerable theatrical capital he accumulated with 'Voyage,' the trilogy's masterful first entry. Too many arguments among Herzen and his philosophical brethren devolve into comic squabbles, and Mr. Stoppard falls prey to some uncharacteristically lumpy exposition Jack O'Brien's staging, so crisp in 'Voyage,' overcompensates here with a glut of visual pictures that are ravishing but of questionable import. Particularly in the first hour of 'Shipwreck,' the trilogy's projected nine-hour running time feels less like a promise and more like a threat."

    JOHN SIMON of BLOOMBERG: "Stoppard's renowned wit is more intermittent than usual, the epigrams fewer and sometimes flatter. But the main trouble is that the large cast of major and minor figures is in constant passing parade, never lingering long enough to truly engage us. We witness the scrambled pieces of several jigsaw puzzles from which neither author nor audience can derive a satisfyingly stable picture."

    MICHAEL KUCHWARA of ASSOCIATED PRESS: "The deeds are big. So are the discussions � dense, volatile and utterly theatrical thanks to Jack O'Brien's kinetic direction and a parade of amazing, agile actors who manage to create fascinating, full-bodied characters in the most fluid of circumstances." & "Herzen, this epic's moral center, is played by Brian F. O'Byrne, best known for his portrayal of a priest under suspicion in the Broadway success 'Doubt.' The stoic, almost taciturn O'Byrne gives a deceptively calm performance that explodes in anger and grief at two specific moments that are the play's emotional highlights."

    DAVID ROONEY of VARIETY: "All head, no heart is a common criticism of Tom Stoppard's work. But the most unexpected and enriching surprise of 'Shipwreck,' the second part of the playwright's epic trilogy "The Coast of Utopia," is that its intellectual vigor is equaled, perhaps even surpassed by its enormous emotional vitality."

    External links to full reviews from newspapers

    New York Times
    New York Daily News
    New York Post
    Journal News
    USA Today
    The Record
    New York Sun
    Associated Press