Part 3 Salvage
The Coast of Utopia - Salvage Part 3 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.
The writer remains mightier than the rapier in Salvage, the third and final chapter in Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia. But unlike in the previous two installments, Voyage and Shipwreck, this time it’s a much closer call. Now that the gleaming-eyed revolutionists of mid-19th-century Russia have grown up and moved away from their homeland, they’re finally beginning to understand what might have always been implicit in their quest to liberate themselves and others: Sometimes a quill is best filled with blood.
Stoppard himself seems to have absorbed that message as well, as Salvage is the third of The Coast of Utopia that pulses most readily with desires, loss, and regret. From irresistible sexual urges to the desire to incite, inform, and make a difference in a world that deems that nearly impossible, Salvage sweeps through the spectrum of human emotions and experiences with the same gentle violence of a wave crashing against the beach, and is awash in sights, sounds, and sensations that are every bit as soothing. Seldom have giants seemed more recognizably on our scale.
That might just be the single finest achievement of both Stoppard and his director, Jack O’Brien, who have now conclusively proved that, in the theatre at least, living people are not necessarily lost in the tidal ebbs and flows of time. If Stoppard argues something fairly different in the plays themselves, that’s incidental - in The Coast of Utopia, however senseless disappearances may seem, they are never truly without reason. An examination of those reasons and their related repercussions is the overriding theme of Salvage during the 15 years (from 1853 to 1868) it documents.
Thus Stoppard and O’Brien’s intent to realize the struggles of Alexander Herzen (Brían F. O’Byrne), the outcast writer-philosopher at the trilogy’s center, resonates more completely than ever before. From the operatic-dumb-show opening, in which Herzen’s cohorts melodically envelop him in their proto-vaudevillian rabble-rousing, through the uprisings, deaths, and rebirths that alternately inspire and erode liberty in populations and individuals across Europe, Herzen is making a journey of international importance that passes directly through his heart and soul.
Inextricably bound to his plans for arousing Russian serfs’ ire through nonviolent means are his own relationships, with the paternal Polish émigré, Count Stanislaw Worcell (Richard Easton), through whom Herzen works to establish free Russian and Polish presses; with his son, Sasha (played at different ages by Evan Daves and Matt Dickson); with his longtime friends and one-time schoolmates Michael Bakunin (Ethan Hawke) and Nicholas Ogarev (Josh Hamilton); and with two devastating women, his German governess Malvida von Meysenbug (Jennifer Ehle) and Nicholas’s wife, Natasha (Martha Plimpton), with whom he creates some lives and destroys still others.
Yet Stoppard and O’Brien never sacrifice these smaller stories to their grander ambitions, and it’s reflected through these people’s eyes that we mostly clearly see the change surrounding them all. How the resolute Malvida sees her own position in Herzen’s life evaporating as Natasha slides ominously into the picture. How Michael’s imprisonment in Siberia transforms his own revolutionary predilections into something different from Herzen’s wider view. How the hope for those seeking the perfect world lies not in what they undertake now, but in the people and causes they enable, beginning with Sasha, on whom Herzen’s fate depends far more than he can yet know.
All these elements in Salvage, the ultimate evolution of others introduced in the six hours of story that precede it, culminate in the unveiling of the crossroads of humanity and history in the play’s final minutes. The effect, a tableau of contemporary Gesamtkunstwerk, represents theatre at its most wonderfully overwhelming, with Stoppard, O’Brien, and designers Bob Crowley and Scott Pask (sets), Catherine Zuber (costumes), and Natasha Katz (lighting) all indelibly responsible for one of the most unforgettable finales you’ll ever seen in a non-musical play.
Not everything reaches the same heights. Some of the speeches and exchanges in the first act lag behind the ideas they express, causing stops and starts that neither Stoppard nor O’Brien allowed to creep in elsewhere. Somewhat more damaging is that many of the performances lack the bite they possessed in Voyage and Shipwreck. Hamilton, Jason Butler Harner as the novelist Turgenev, and especially Hawke, forced to play far beyond their actual ages, can’t completely convince as the world-worn men they become during Salvage. Their words always compel, but generally lack the weight of believability needed for these broken-down dreamers. Even O’Byrne occasionally stumbles, his usually focused work straining from carrying on his back not just the trilogy’s most emotionally complex play, but also the burden of human social evolution.
Other actors, however, do some of their best work of all three plays here. Easton’s Polish count is highly persuasive as a man who knows he’s outlived his own usefulness, but who becomes crucial in Herzen’s own development; Ehle finds layer after chilly layer in the dominating yet brittle Malvida. Plimpton’s Natasha is a gorgeous rendering, smoothly acidic and comic, devoted to Nicholas and yet longing for Herzen’s more understanding arms. Plimpton makes you feel every moment of confusion, every kickback from the wounds she inflicts in Nicholas, and you respect - as you might not expect to - the choices that lead to several global and personal downfalls.
It’s in Natasha that we experience the full brunt of the peculiar magic propelling Salvage, and the whole trilogy: The events that rocked the world can look obvious in retrospect, but originally came about through the words and actions of ordinary, maybe even unnoticeable people often fated to never receive their due. We may never fully grasp the extent to which our present Earth was molded by men and women like those Stoppard chronicles here, but the men and women who have brought them all to life at Lincoln Center are practitioners of theatre at its finest and most affecting. If The Coast of Utopia does not itself change history, it shows all the signs it’s busy making a great deal of its own.