[...] Stoppard, a master at using wit and humanity to lighten up Big Ideas, denies his play is a polemic. "It's about a family, and brothers and sisters and struggles between lovers, and parents and children." Lofty ideals may drive his characters but they can't escape the emotional turbulence of their own lives, and Stoppard focuses on this human messiness. Exhibit A is the writer and early socialist Alexander Herzen (played by Brían F. O'Byrne), who appears in "Voyage" and anchors the next two plays, set mostly in Europe where the gentlemen revolutionaries go into exile. "Herzen was an early feminist," says the playwright. "He didn't think men had the right of possession over their wives. But it never occurred to him that his wife might fall for somebody else. For a little while, it destroyed him." [...]
[...]The first of Stoppard's trilogy of historical plays, “Voyage,” opens at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre in Lincoln Center tomorrow night with a star-studded, 46-member cast.
While performing “Voyage” on weekends, the cast rehearses with O'Brien on weekdays for the second drama in the trilogy, “Shipwreck,” before tackling “Salvage.” All three plays center on the mid-19th-century radicals whose ideas transformed czarist Russia.
With a $7.5 million budget and a gleaming, lacquered set by British designer Bob Crowley, Stoppard's trilogy plays larger than the big, Globe-sprung commercial musicals – the “Damn Yankees” revival and “The Full Monty” – that first earned O'Brien his New York reputation.
“I have never been prouder of anything in my life than my work on 'Coast of Utopia,' ” O'Brien said. “I'm hemorrhaging art. My veins are open and it's just cascading out of me.
“And we have this miracle company of basically young people,” he added, referring to a cast headlined by film stars Ethan Hawke and Billy Crudup, and Tony winners Brian F. O'Byrne and Jennifer Ehle. [...]
Also there's an account of the cast's response to Richard Easton's onstage collapse.
You know the moment during "Keep it Gay" in "The Producers" where Carmen & co. flash the mirror around to the repeated tune of "Tony", "Tony", "Tony", "Tony?" That's exactly what was on my mind as I left the Lincoln Center Friday night. You know, along with questions about the human soul, the essence of socialism and communisim, and thoughts on the orgin of ideas. Typical mind flashes for anyone who wisely ventures to this production. [...]
I did not go into Coast of Utopia optimistically. I know nothing of that period of Russian history and wasn't sure I even cared. In fact, my friend and I were discussing to whom we might sell our tickets to Parts II and III.
Well, considering that Tom Stoppard has been my favorite playwright for 30 years, I shouldn't have worried! Coast of Utopia, Part I, is a tremendous piece of work, funny, warm, involving, moving, and fascinating.
It is, however, occasionally hard to follow, I will admit--lots of people with Russian names, lots of quickly spoken dialogue, lots of plot. But that's only a minor problem, since there is so much to chew on and enjoy.
Ethan Hawke and Billy Crudup are both brilliant. Vibrant. Convincing. Entertaining. They may have to arm wrestle for the Tony--and Brian O'Byrne hasn't even had a chance to make his impact yet!
I just want to throw positive adjectives at this show. [...]