Part 2 Shipwreck
The Coast of Utopia - Shipwreck Part 2 of A Trilogy by Tom Stoppard. Directed by Jack O'Brien. Sets by Bob Crowley & Scott Pask. Costumes by Catherine Zuber. Lighting (Voyage) by Brian MacDevitt, (Shipwreck) by Kenneth Posner, (Salvage) by Natasha Katz. Original Music & Sound by Mark Bennett. Cast (In Alphabetical Order): Billy Crudup, Richard Easton, Jennifer Ehle, Josh Hamilton, David Harbour, Jason Butler Harner, Ethan Hawke, Amy Irving, Brían F. O'Byrne, Martha Plimpton; And Bianca Amato, Mia Barron, Larry Bull, Denis Butkus, Michael Carlsen, Amanda Leigh Cobb, Anthony Cochrane, Patricia Conolly, David Cromwell, Adam Dannheiser, Matt Dickson, Aaron Krohn, Felicity LaFortune, Jennifer Lyon, David Manis, Andrew McGinn, Kellie Overbey, Scott Parkinson, David Pittu, Annie Purcell, Erika Rolfsrud, Brian Sgambati, Robert Stanton, Eric Sheffer Stevens, Baylen Thomas, David Christopher Wells.
When last we left our intrepid voyagers drifting through the stormy, scintillating seas of The Coast of Utopia, it seemed they were youths becoming adults, unseasoned young men headed from obscurity to fame, even Russians setting off for Paris. But now that Shipwreck, Part Two of Tom Stoppard's monumental trilogy, has opened at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont, we can see just how right and wrong we were. They were sailing in all those directions, and may yet arrive at them, but it's now clear they were destined first to pass through a love story.
Granted, that tale is more Bermuda Triangle than Niagara Falls, but the heat and the heart are there just the same. How can this be? Why would Stoppard apply the brakes to the speeding automobile represented by the trilogy's first installment, Voyage, just when things started getting good? He hasn't. He's instead slammed on the gas, setting things hurtling forward faster than ever. It just so happens that the scenery gracing this leg of journey is of the distinctly human variety. And if anything, it's an even more dazzling sight than Voyage.
When this sprawling epic is viewed at point-blank range - as Stoppard does almost exclusively here - the broader picture emerges with even greater clarity. Whereas Voyage at times felt like a survey of great 19th century Russian thinkers and their timeless thoughts, Shipwreck spends the time necessary to explore them and their relationships in more exacting detail. The result is that you come to understand and even care about the revolutions (internal and external) on which the trilogy, like their lives, is constructed.
The external are easiest to pinpoint in Shipwreck: Various scenes from 1846 to 1852 bookend the Revolutions of 1848 that infected Europe, with bourgeois reformers in France, Italy, and elsewhere attempting to wrest control of their governments. The French leg even bursts into The Coast of Utopia in one violently operatic scene that both recalls and puts to shame the current Broadway revival of Les Misérables. Everyone in the trilogy is fighting for his or her life, and the lives of those who come after - whether they're aware of it or not. And whatever the specific outcome, the tides of change may not be halted.
The truly painful revelation comes with the knowledge that the same applies to humans as well. Philosopher, author, and discontent Alexander Herzen (beautifully played by Brían F. O'Byrne), on whom the focus of the trilogy has at last settled, learns this the hard way: His life of privileged leisure is interrupted when he and his wife, Natalie (a stunning Jennifer Ehle), must depart Russia to seek medical assistance for their deaf son. Though he doesn't yet know it, they will not return unaltered. But tumultuous though their travels are, it's not so much what they do but how they do it that gives Shipwreck its rugged, rocky romance.
The tests the couple's love must endure include everything from visits by Voyage's Russian Round Table of brilliants to the stress of their son's condition and the interference of a German poet named George Herwegh (David Harbour). How Alexander and Natalie's union holds - or doesn't - against the backdrop of a crumbling Europe and the rumblings of mounting class uprisings the continent over becomes the gripping center of this powerful chapter. And O'Byrne and Ehle's characters are so drowning in passion and pain, bearing the full weight of modern history, that you often fear the performers will crack under the strain of supporting so much and sink like stones.
That never happens, however often their characters are broken down and rebuilt. O'Byrne and Ehle are terrific individually as they attempt to assert themselves in a constantly changing world, but they unquestionably do their best work together when they feed off each other with codependent, parasitic flair that particularizes their relationship in increasingly engrossing ways. In these gifted performers' hands, it doesn't take the characters long to move beyond collapsing Russian stateliness and into something more - the scorching words they exchange, the wounds they incur and inflict, and the ultimate tragedy they experience bear all the lofty importance of Greek tragedy. (This installment's title, which has multiple layers of meaning for the troubled Herzens, is perhaps Stoppard's subtlest and harshest stroke.)
The final scenes, in which the global stage is set for the saga's conclusion even suggest the presence of magic in their world. I, for one, am not surprised. The spell Stoppard and his co-wizard, director Jack O'Brien, have woven this time around is even more mesmerizing, with an increased urgency, emotional potency, and pervasive richness surpassing that of the affecting Voyage. Nothing - including the dreamlike sets by Bob Crowley and Scott Pask; Catherine Zuber's rippling costumes; Kenneth Posner's piercing lighting; and all the supporting performances, especially from the likes of Martha Plimpton as Natalie's friend, Patricia Conolly as Herzen's mother, and Jason Butler Harner as Ivan Turgenev - feels lacking, and the evolution of all these individual elements into a single sweeping landscape is a grand experience unrivaled in most other Broadway plays this year.
If Shipwreck has a problem, it's that all the complex momentum it generates might be difficult to sustain through the final chapter, Salvage, which could prevent the end of the trilogy from delivering on all the promise that precedes it. How Stoppard will widen his gaze again after focusing so intently on these intimate matters is not exactly clear. Frankly, however, these are problems more shows should have.
Audiences, meanwhile, face an even more severe crisis: How to bear the next seven weeks until Part Three: Salvage opens? Alas, I can't answer that for you - I'm too busy trying to figure it out myself.