Shipwreck, the second installment of Tom Stoppard’s trilogy The Cost of Utopia, is an impressive achievement; however the visually stunning production directed by Jack O’Brien is more dramatically engaging than the playwright’s unfolding storylines told by an enormous cast of over 40 actors. O’Brien and his design team have created many astonishing images that have trumped Stoppard’s epic drama of 19th century Russian intellectuals during the repressive reign of Tsar Nicholas. Indeed the dramatic design elements are the real stars of the evening upstaging not only the actors, but the play as well. Set designers Bob Crowley and Scott Pask have provided diversely arresting images including: the Place de la Concorde, before, during and after the French revolution; a marvelous chandelier that hangs over many of the salon scenes commenting on the lavish lifestyle of the main characters; and many incandescent backdrops. Kenneth Posner’s imaginative lighting enhances the visual components to such a degree that several of the scenes have an awe inspiring effect. The intensity of the visuals will linger in your mind long after you have forgotten much of the evening’s philosophical debates.
Running over 9 hours when viewed in its entirety, the extensively researched story follows six young idealistic noblemen struggling with the coming revolution and the events that will eventually bring Russia into the modern age. The ambitious project is praise worthy, indeed, but despite intriguing stories with often witty dialogue, and a shift by Stoppard in Part Two that combines domestic love issues with the political story, the evening does not satisfy as emotionally moving theatre.
The focus of Part Two is on Alexander Herzen (Brian F. O’Byrne), and the playwright’s fact based fictional drama traces events in context with Herzen’s relationship with his unfaithful wife Natalie (Jennifer Ehle) and their sons Sasha (Beckett Melville) and Kolya (August Gladstone, the son of Guild Hall’s artistic director Josh Gladstone). Herzen is a socialist whose political and philosophical ideas are in direct opposition to the anarchist Michael Bakunin (Ethan Hawke), – the central character of Part One – Voyage. Complicating things Natalie has affairs with the German poet George Herwegh (David Harbour) and a friend Natasha Tuchkov (Martha Plimpton).The first two parts begin with Herzen sitting on a pedestal contemplating the concept of Utopia and finally expressing the conclusion that Utopia is some sort of elusive ideal that will resonate as the playwright’s central theme.
Stoppard’s play is propelled by the conflicting philosophies of love and politics, but the introduction of messy human relationships brings Shipwreck added dimension that make it more compelling than Part One – Voyage. Stoppard has turned Natalie into a complex character searching for an ideal for love, which itself is just as unobtainable as the utopia her husband longs for.
The actors are excellent, but as opposed to living in the life of the play, there is a tendency by them to play qualities rather than create fully developed characterizations. Brian F. O’Byrne stands out and his confrontations with Ehle are some of the evening’s most compelling scenes. His Herzen is a charismatic presence more realistic than most of the reckless idealists that inhabit The Coast of Utopia.
Jack O’Brien seems to have given so much attention to the stunning visuals, that it appears he has somewhat neglected the actors and as a result there a few real moments with emotional impact, but Utopia is nonetheless an exciting triumph.
Originally Published in Dan's Papers
Part Three – “Salvage” opens February 15 and The Cost of Utopia will then play in rep through May 13. The Coast of Utopia – Part Two: Shipwreck is now playing at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre, 150 West 65th Street at Broadway. Tickets are available by calling 212-239-6200 or at the box office.