Boy, I really wish I cared about Alexander Herzen, Ivan Turgenev, Poland's Count Worcell, Karl Marx and the rest of the notables in London's ï¿½migrï¿½ Circle of the 1850s and 1860s. Their stories are unequivocally like a sumptuous intellectual repast, but like any meal without salt and pepper, the result, no matter how elegantly presented, is flat.
The operative word here is "intellectual," and that is what makes it so difficult to connect to this play. Such is the way I feel about "Salvage," the third installment of Tom Stoppard's opulent opus, 'The Coast of Utopia,' no longer playing to a sold out house. When I attended "Voyage" and "Shipwreck," there wasn't a seat to be had, but at 'Salvage,'
I had my choice. In the theater world, everyone wants to love Stoppard. His writing is divine, his humor droll, his intelligence prodigious. The plays he writes are for adults, ones who really care about what happens on stage and will accept nothing less than excellence. And certainly what is happening on stage achieves this end, but in the end, I think "Utopia" is better read than seen.
In my review of the first two installments, I waxed ecstatic about Stoppard's ideas. But by the time you get to 'Salvage,' you've heard them all already. And I think Stoppard realized that too, because while this play deals with the dispirited literary revolutionaries living in exile, they are now "old"and forgotten. Instead, while revolution remains a main subject, we especially get to see the characters from their personal side.
Herzen, along with his reckless pal Michael Bakunin, reminisce about the revolutionary events in the glorious year of 1848, the German and Italian reunifications, and the last stand on the barricades in Paris. But their words are ignored by the new breed of revolutionaries who prefer violence over peaceful means.
"I'm 40 and every illusion has been taken from me," says Herzen. Louis Blanc, the French socialist who has teamed up with Marx, derisively calls Herzen a "tourist." Now Herzen spends his time with his son, and visiting friends, Natasha and Nicholas Ogarev.
Herzen's wife, Natalie, had run off with the German poet, George Herwegh, and he is lonely. With the arrival of Nicholas and Natasha, things get better. But the couple's marriage is shaky, Nicholas drinks, and Herzen and Natasha end up having an affair that produces children -- all while Nicholas lives with them, and apparently approves.
When Natalie, Herzen's first wife, left him, he was devastated, primarily, it seems, because Herwegh was a second-rate poet. Everything is just hunky-dory, however, in this odd situation because Nicholas and Herzen love and respect one another. So I guess if Natalie had run off with Rilke, it would have been OK. But that's a different idea.
One plot thread that Stoppard neglects to follow through deals with Malwide, the tutor for Herzen's children who manages to get herself elevated to a dominatrix-style housefrau, taking over the children's education, telling Herzen how often his friends may visit, and insisting they move to the country. Powerful lady. How'd she manage this? Why did Herzen allow it? Would make a good play, a better one than 'Salvage.'
Jennifer Ehle as Malwide is electrifying and the one to watch. But also take note of Bob Crowley's and Scott Pask's magnificent set which brilliantly uses a ragged-edged scrim to create a sunset, mountains, and forest. See "Salvage" only if you've seen "Shipwreck" and "Voyage," but if you decide to pass, you won't have missed much.
What the press had to say.....
BEN BRANTLEY of the NEW YORK TIMES: ï¿½I wouldnï¿½t call it a major work of art. In literary terms I wouldnï¿½t even rank it with Mr. Stoppardï¿½s best. But as directed by Jack Oï¿½Brien and acted and designed by a stellar team of artisans, ï¿½Utopiaï¿½ is a major work of theatrical craftsmanship, a luscious advertisement for the singular narrative seductiveness of drama."
JOE DZIEMIANOWICZ of the NEW YORK DAILY NEWS: "Tom Stoppard's epic trilogy 'The Coast of Utopia' is more than a play, it's an extravagant event. If you see all three self-contained parts, it's an expensive one. 'Salvage,' the final chapter, which opened last night, is worth every penny. Granted, some scenes are talky and repetitive. But the production amply compensates with dazzling acting and vivid stage pictures."
CLIVE BARNES of THE NEW YORK POST: "The voyage is complete, the journey ended. 'Salvage,' the third and last install ment of Tom Stoppard's dazzling and wonderfully satisfying trilogy." & "a production to be savored, like some heady brandy - rolled over in the palate of the mind, and treasured in the heart."
MICHAEL SOMMERS of STAR-LEDGER: "While 'Salvage' offers fewer visual opportunities than the others, director Jack O'Brien's superb staging remains as sure as ever. His Lincoln Center Theater troupe of 40-plus actors, many doubling and tripling roles in the trilogy, continues to offer terrific ensemble work."
JACQUES LE SOURD of THE JOURNAL NEWS "I've seen it all, finally, and the curtain calls are still my favorite part. Tom Stoppard's nearly nine-hour play about the Russian intelligentsia in the mid-19th century, 'The Coast of Utopia,' sits like an elegant, inanimate lump on the stage of the Vivian Beaumont Theatre." & "The show's unquestioned elegance is contributed by the director, Jack O'Brien, who lends the production the illusion of motion and sweep which is absent from the text."
ELYSA GARDNER of USA TODAY: "Catching a preview of Salvage, the third and final installment in Tom Stoppard's 'The Coast of Utopia', I felt like a kid unwrapping the last of my presents after a fabulous birthday party. Luckily, I wasn't disappointed. Like Voyage and Shipwreck, the first two plays in Stoppard's historical trilogy, Salvage, now at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater, is as aggressively entertaining as it is intellectually and spiritually provocative." & "Let's hope the remaining season brings a few new plays that burn even half as brightly."
LINDA WINER of NEWSDAY: "If the first two plays enthralled with their outlandish multi-taxing ambition and the oddly touching dedication of their 44 gifted actors, these last hours burrow deep into the emotional marrow of the restless individuals we have come to enjoy and - flaws and all - to cherish."
ROBERT FELDBERG of THE RECORD: "What's missing in all three plays -- except for the latter part of "Shipwreck" -- is stirring, compelling drama. Looking back at the trilogy, which runs a cumulative 8ï¿½ hours, it's hard to recall many vivid moments." & "Salvage," as the two earlier works, couldn't have a better production: strong direction by Jack O'Brien, luminous scenery by Bob Crowley and Scott Pask, superb lighting by Natasha Katz and generally fine acting. What falls short is the play. At one point, Herzen, in an amiable dispute with Bakunin, declares, "The heroes died on the barricades. I'm surrounded by speechmakers -- and I'm one to talk!" The problem in a nutshell."
ERIC GRODE of the NEW YORK SUN: "What began last November as a triumphant melding of head and heart, a career-defining work for Mr. Stoppard and for director Jack O'Brien, has devolved into a visually rapturous but dramaturgically soggy series of lectures that too often let the play's broader themes wriggle away." & " 'The Coast of Utopia,' ... arrived on our shores with the force of a tidal wave and since then has steadily receded into the depths."
JOHN SIMON of BLOOMBERG: "More than in the preceding two, the characters are oftener mouthpieces than people, whether their words and actions come from history or from Stoppard's historicizing imagination. And neither the trilogy as a whole nor the individual installments can boast a proper dramatic arc. " & "if only the three parts of this epic had unfurled in ascending order of impact rather than in anticlimactic reverse."
MICHAEL KUCHWARA of ASSOCIATED PRESS: "The passions of their idealistic youth run up against reality and middle-age for the 19th-century revolutionaries and intellectuals in 'Salvage,' the third chapter of 'The Coast of Utopia,' Tom Stoppard's masterful trilogy of man's quest for a new and better world." & "Rueful resignation isn't as dramatically exciting, so the Lincoln Center Theater production of 'Salvage' doesn't have the innate theatricality that propelled 'Voyage' and 'Shipwreck,' the first two-thirds of Stoppard's mammoth work. Yet that doesn't stop director Jack O'Brien and his amazing company of actors from breathing urgency into the demanding, sometimes dense conversations."
PETER MARKS of the WASHINGTON POST: "It comes as a pleasant surprise that in the third and last installment of this epic work the lengthy preliminaries finally have given way to a story of historical suppleness and sweep." & "For unalloyed strength, however, little could beat O'Brien's fluid textual choreography or the elegance of Bob Crowley and Scott Pask's gleaming sets, which help the characters in Stoppard's sometimes overly busy trilogy to seem as lithe as figure skaters."
DAVID ROONEY of VARIETY: "Ultimately, this is as much O'Brien's show as it is Stoppard's, cementing the director's rep as one of the boldest, most inventive visionaries in contemporary theater. Keeping the brainy talkathon flowing like liquid on and around the stage's constantly spinning black turntable, O'Brien is a robust visual storyteller and a masterful manipulator of actors. This vast project is his triumph."
External links to full reviews from newspapers