Part 1 Voyage
The Coast of Utopia - Voyage Part 1 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.
There are few greater pleasures in living a theatre-full life than expecting to be drowned by a towering show and instead finding yourself washed away on a tide of exciting, thought-provoking entertainment that nonetheless eventually deposits you safely on shore. Or should that be the coast?
Let's go with that, if only for the moment. For tribute must be paid to The Coast of Utopia, Tom Stoppard's epic trilogy of plays that just got its official start with the opening of its first chapter, Voyage. Lincoln Center Theater is occupying itself with this mammoth opus for the better part of the season, and if you want to step foot in the Vivian Beaumont between now and March, the only way to do so is by way of 19th century Russia. Believe it or not, this is less threatening - and more rewarding - than it sounds.
Despite Stoppard's not entirely undeserved reputation for writing dense plays on esoteric subjects ranging from philosophy and chaos theory to literature and England's occupation of India, Voyage is some of the most instantly accessible Stoppard Broadway has seen in years. Advanced word from London, where The Coast of Utopia premiered a few years back, was that the work was compelling and brilliantly written but stuffy and perhaps even self-absorbed. Under Jack O'Brien's direction here, Voyage doesn't smolder or steam - it crackles and blazes.
It's hard to imagine anyone other than O'Brien successfully wrangling a project of this magnitude: In plays (Henry IV, Stoppard's The Invention of Love) and musicals (Hairspray, The Full Monty) alike, he's proven his abilities to apply both rigid and fluid logic to scenes and full productions so that a cinematic feel and flow are always guaranteed; his musicals carry the weight of plays and his plays dance and surge like classic musical comedies. This is exactly what's needed to guide audiences through three plays (nearly nine hours) of philosophizing, with dozens of actors playing even more dozens of characters telling the story of the "opening" of Russia's literature to the world.
But don't worry, even when you see the lengthy synopsis and recommended reading list accompanying your Playbill: O'Brien and Stoppard have knocked themselves out to ensure you won't need to be able to tell your Tolstoy from your Turgenev or your German Idealism from your George Sand. The results are a slightly qualified knockout.
Voyage alone spans 11 years, from 1833 to 1844, introducing us to the six young men who will form the revolutionary backbone of Russia's emergence. Michael Bakunin (Ethan Hawke), Nicholas Stankevich (David Harbour), Vissarion Belinsky (Billy Crudup), Ivan Turgenev himself (Jason Butler Harner), Alexander Herzen (Brían F. O'Byrne), and Nicholas Ogarev (Josh Hamilton) are at this point young students at Moscow University who are being influenced by the philosophy and politics emerging from Germany and France, and who in turn want to bring these ideas to the financially and intellectually impoverished Russian people.
In the wake of the Decembrist uprising a few years earlier, opportunities are few and the chances for success even slimmer, though that does not discourage the central characters here from picking up the mantle and pressing for change from the inside out. In the first act, we see how these social upheavals affect military cadet Michael's well-to-do family, as a parade of Michael's flamboyant friends passes through their Premukhino home; the second act, set in Moscow during and after the events of the first act, shows how the students planted the specific seeds of rebellion and disobedience that would release tens of millions of citizens from their serfdom.
This potentially confusing structure is pure putty in the hands of O'Brien, who simplifies, clarifies, and energizes so much through his staging that you never feel in danger of being lost. You're always engaged on levels personal as well as expansive, as intrigued by the people as you are the production's size and scope. From the arresting opening image, in which Herzen is borne aloft on a tidal wave of confused memory, to its closing tableau of the disintegrating Bakunin family deserter Michael leaves behind, the production is rife with the responsible richness properly befitting the first chapter in any great saga, from the Bible to The Lord of the Rings.
It's there, though, that the production's sole caveat rears its hazy head: This is not, in and of itself, a full play. If you're expecting a well-rounded, self-contained dramatic piece, you won't find it here: Voyage is less exciting for the glimmering jewels it contains than the stars it promises. While you can delight at Stoppard's masterful construction of the framework for the rest of the trilogy, payoffs at this point are few and far between, if not altogether nonexistent.
The sparkling, ghostly majestic sets of Bob Crowley and Scott Pask, which hauntingly evoke everything from the unwashed masses to the familiar spires of St. Basil's Cathedral; Catherine Zuber's countless handsome costumes; and Brian MacDevitt's spirited lighting are already beyond reproach, and might well only get better in the shows to come. But it's unusually challenging to appraise the performances this time around, as practically nothing exists here solely on its own terms.
Crudup's antic literary critic, a lone voice against a deafening chorus of silence, seems a major highlight, and Crudup lands every laugh in traversing the treacherous territory of this definitely dangerous young man. And I wasn't taken at all with Hawke's manic, unfocused Michael, who seems more like a Vietnam draft card burner than a hopeful idealist, and draws his convictions from the surface of his skin rather than the depths of the soul that his compatriots plumb. Hawke might, however, be setting up this expectation to grant more impact to a cataclysmic fall later on; I wouldn't put it past him. The supporting players, including Richard Easton (here as Michael's disapproving father), Amy Irving (as Michael's mother), and Jennifer Ehle and Martha Plimpton (as Michael's sisters), are all superb, communicating a continuity and community that give even this wading pool of an opener a real, satisfying depth.
Even if titanic major events here are few and far between, they fulfill their most important function of setting the stage for the world-changing conflicts to come. What all will those involve? Only time will tell, and judging from the foundation that's been laid here, it can't tell us soon enough.