Past Reviews

Broadway Reviews


Theatre Review by Howard Miller - April 22, 2024

Patriots by Peter Morgan. Directed by Rupert Goold. Set design by Miriam Buether. Co-costume design by Deborah Andrews and Miriam Buether. Lighting design by Jack Knowles. Sound design and composer Adam Cork. Video design by Ash J. Woodward. Hair, wig and makeup design by Campbell Young Associates. Movement by Polly Bennett. Dialect coach Kate Wilson. U. S. Associate director Deanna Weiner. Design Supervisor Edward Pierce.
Cast: Michael Stuhlbarg, Will Keen, Luke Thallon, Stella Baker, Rosie Benton, Jeff Biehl, Peter Bradbury, Camila Canó-Flaviá, Joe Forbrich, Marianna Gailus, Ronald Guttman, Alex Hurt, Paul Kynman, Adam Poss, Nick Rehberger, and Tony Ward.
Theater: Ethel Barrymore Theatre

Michael Stuhlbarg
Photo by Matthew Murphy
It's the Fiery Oligarch vs. the Icy Dictator in Peter Morgan's Patriots, opening tonight at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. Only one of them can survive, though in the end you may come away feeling like Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet when he is caught up in the battle between the Capulets and the Montagues and spits out a curse: "A plague o' both your houses!"

The politics of power, the power of politics, and the role of money, money, money, money, money. That's the stuff of this fierce play that centers on the very real story of the fight for the soul of Russia between two inordinately self-important men: the billionaire oligarch Boris Berezovsky and the politico he foolishly believes he can control, Vladimir Putin.

Not to worry if you can't quite recall the details of the period of perestroika and glasnost that marked an era of seismic change within the Soviet Union just ahead of its collapse. By the start of the play, we're well into it, and playwright Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon and television's "The Crown") is a decidedly savvy wordsmith, more than up to the task of providing sufficient scaffolding to keep us on track with this British import, tautly directed by Rupert Goold.

If nothing else, you will find yourself mesmerized by the manic performance by Michael Stuhlbarg as Berezovsky, who forsook a promising if unexciting career as a mathematician to reinvent himself as a rising businessman at a time when Russia began to experiment with privatization of what had long been state-controlled property. It wasn't long before Berezovsky became the global symbol for a group of billionaire oligarchs who were able to latch onto the newfound quasi-capitalistic way of doing things.

Berezovsky had his fingers in many pies, including the automotive industry and the media, using the country's major television network as his personal propaganda tool. Both of these enterprises came to bite him in the ass over time. But let's start with the second one, the personal power he accrued by taking over Channel One and the biggest mistake of his life. That mistake, in which he had the company of many of his fellow oligarchs, was in underestimating the man they handpicked to replace Russian President Boris Yeltsin (Paul Kynman), with whom they had a comfortably symbiotic relationship.

Will Keen Photo
Photo by Matthew Murphy
That man was a little known KGB and political functionary known as Vladimir Putin, a seemingly quiet, obsequious pencil pusher with little backbone or ambition. Easy to control. What could go wrong?

Plenty, it seems. As portrayed by Will Keen, whose performance of the role in London garnered him a 2023 Olivier Award, Putin changes before our eyes from an obsequious Uriah Heep to a grudge-holding Captain Queeg. Where Stuhlbarg's Berezovsky is all crazed Russian bear, Keen's Putin is way more fascinating to watch in transfiguration as he gains in self-importance and power until he resembles the persona we are most familiar with today. (At one point, we find him posing in front of a mirror, trying out various images of himself). And watch what happens when Berezovsky wields the power of Channel One to go after Putin. The tug-of-war between them is endlessly fascinating and is more than enough reason to check out Patriots.

This is not a two-character play by any means, however, and there are excellent performances all around. Alex Hurt is quite compelling as dissident Alexander Litvinenko, as is Luke Thallon as Roman Abramovich, a business colleague, and, later, a rival, whom Berezovsky also underestimates, a victim of his own hubris. There are even some episodic musical interludes and a massive curved set design to capture the eye.

Still, for all intents and purposes, it's all about Berezovsky and Putin. Eventually, one will die in exile in England, possibly by suicide, possibly by murder, while the other will continue to accumulate power. Regardless, both will always think of themselves as "patriots," keepers and saviors of the Russian people. Feel free to take sides. And while you are at it, consider the state of our own country's economics and politics. Billionaires and politicians. A plague o' both your houses.