In case you've missed the claps of thunder, there's been a storm crackling on the stage of Lincoln Center Theater this season. Passionate Russians debating the future of their country, its enslaved masses, its relationship to the West, the merits of free love, the infinite varieties of socialism. Yes, yes, we know how it all turns out, but don't say it too loudly. The year is still 1833, and the history of the 20th century has not yet been written.
Or so we begin when the curtain goes up on "The Coast of Utopia," Tom Stoppard's sweeping trilogy about a generation of brilliant Russian intellectuals, philosophers, anarchists, poets, novelists, and critics, their lives, their families, their tumultuous romances, and their fumbling through the darkness as the utopian future they're sure is around the corner shows its face far too slowly, and the present in which they live is one of failed revolution abroad and brutal dictatorship at home.
I have seen Parts I and II so far, and they have been, by and large, an exhilarating ride. These plays course with an intellectual vigor not often found in Broadway theater, and they manage, through Stoppard's particular brand of alchemy, and O'Brien's fluid direction, to turn the stuff of intellectual history seminars into a vibrant theater of ideas, to take the words and arguments of these men and women seriously, but at the same time, to wonder if any of their cultivated banter or their fusillades of political insight made one iota of difference as the gears of history ground forward.
But beyond that, "Utopia" does not entirely forget to be a human drama, and there is a deep poignancy to the plight of its genial, broad-spirited central character, the writer and theorist of revolution Alexander Herzen (played superbly by Brian O'Byrne) . Herzen is a fascinating if largely forgotten figure in Russian history, but there is an abiding resonance to his guiding ideas, his relentless optimism, and the generosity of his stance toward a broken world he was trying so desperately to fix.
It all adds up to a theatrical experience with more relevance than you might otherwise expect from 19th-century Russian history, and a sense that the stories of these figures, the contours of their unrealized visions, are worth recalling, if only for a few hours in the darkened theater. Or maybe, as was the case for me in Parts I and II, you'll find a particular line lingering in the mind long after the house lights have come up. And then there's always a chance that, despite the loud chorus of critical raves, you'll be part of the small but vocal minority for whom this play seems like one tediously long string of chatter without the trappings of a vital drama, a view voiced recently by Charles Isherwood in the New York Times.
Sunday, February 11, 2007
"Exhilarating ride in Russian history"
Here are some excerpts from the Boston Globe: