The journey has concluded with Salvage, the third part of Tom Stoppard’s ambitious trilogy The Cost of Utopia which opened at the Vivian Beaumont Theater. The visually stunning Lincoln Center production is an impressive achievement covering decades of time, cram packed with ideas and philosophies and peopled with a multitude of characters. Directed by previous Stoppard collaborator Jack O’Brien, the richly evocative evening is stylishly dazzling, but despite all its accomplishments the epic drama chronicling the life of a group of 19th century Russian intellectuals longing for the revolution is ultimately less than compelling theatre.
Each installment begins with the image of Alexander Herzen (Brian F. O’Byrne) sitting alone holding the glove of his lost child, Kolya, and each part begins with the sound of a bell, symbolic for the paper “The Bell,” which Herzen published and for which history remembers him best.
You could use a score card to keep tack of the players and storylines, but here’s a quick roundup. The trilogy follows six young noblemen, who meet as students at the University of Moscow during the reign of Tsar Nicholas and forge lasting friendships. Herzen’s life unfolds in three chapters. Part I Voyage covers roughly a ten year period and takes place at his family’s country home. The young Herzen with his friend Nicholas Ogarev (Josh Hamilton) are propelled to avenge the Decembrists and bring Russia into the modern age. This will be the turning point of their lives propeling the drama. Part II Shipwreck takes us to Paris in 1848 and is symbolic for Herzen’s spiritual shipwreck as he watches the newly emancipated French people go against their best interests and select a king. Stoppard combines love issues with the political drama and we watch as Herzen’s personal life mirrors the political reversals taking several disastrous turns.
Part III – Salvage chronicles the final 15 years of Herzen’s career in London, where he is in lonely exile raising his children. He is reunited with his friend Ogarev and establishes the Free Russian Press publishing “The Bell,” a cheap paper which exposed corruption and advocated free speech. The Bell published opinions from within Russia calling not only for Polish independence, but also for the emancipation of the Russian Serfs and was then smuggled back into Russia.
Brian F. O’Byrne grounds the evening with a strong performance, but the entire company is uniformly excellent. Martha Plimpton and Jennifer Ehle as the women in Herzen’s life are outstanding. Performing in rep the accomplished cast turn in extraordinary work.
Jack O’Brien has given so much attention to the stunning visuals, that his almost operatic staging overwhelms the story and the actors. Visually we are enthralled, yes, but emotionally we are distanced. An exciting triumph nonetheless.
The lighting by Natasha Katz is superb, the sets by Bob Crowley and Scott Pask are dramatically wonderful with lush transitions, and Catherine Zuber’s beautiful costumes are richly detailed period recreations that complete the design beautifully.
The visuals will linger in your mind long after you have forgotten much of the evening’s intellectual banter. The message remains crystal clear. Stop searching… Utopia does not exist; be happy with the imperfect world we live in.
gordin & christiano
Originally Published in Dan's Papers
The three plays are now running in rotating repertory through May 13. However for the impassioned Stoppard addict, they may be seen in their entirely on eight remaining Saturdays in a marathon schedule. Part I starts at 11am and ends at 1:40pm; Part II begins at 3:30pm ending at 6:00pm; and Part III begins at 8pm concluding around 10:30pm
The Coast of Utopia: Part III – Salvage opened on February 19, 2007 at the Lincoln Center Vivian Beaumont Theater, 150 West 65th Street at Broadway. For tickets call 212-239-6200 or visit the box office. Times and dates vary.