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December 22, 2006 E-mail story   Print  

From Newsday

'The Coast of Utopia, Part Two: Shipwreck'

The Coast of Utopia

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BY LINDA WINER, Newsday Staff Writer

Much has transpired in the weeks since we met over the first remarkable installment of "The Coast of Utopia."

For starters, Tom Stoppard's outlandishly ambitious trilogy about progressive thought in 19th century Russia has exploded into the least likely triumph of the Broadway season. Before last night's opening of "Shipwreck," the second of its three plays, Lincoln Center Theater already had extended contracts for its massive 44-member cast at least through May 13, and rumors are carrying the three-play repertory and all-day marathons even beyond the Tony Awards in June.

More to the point, Jack O'Brien's astonishing, visually stupendous production has further tightened its grip with ever more engrossing tales of the privileged young Russian thinkers who began the sweep of massive social change. They get giddy with the pan-European revolts of 1848 and get swept away by disillusionment.

The characters of "Shipwreck" are no longer the hot-headed, hot-blooded students who emerged in the first part, "Voyage." Thirteen years have passed since we last glimpsed these restless pre-revolutionaries, dropping names and arguing about humanist ideals without noticing the stooped serfs - called, without irony, "souls" - lined up in silent servitude to give their masters the luxury of philosophy.

We are relieved to find both continuity and new splendors in the masterly creative team - in sets by Bob Crowley and Scott Pask, costumes by Catherine Zuber and lights by Kenneth Posner. Again, the first sight is of the aging Alexander Herzen in a chair that hovers high above the dark silken ravages of the sea. The ice sculpture of Moscow was the wow-moment of "Voyage." Here it is the Place de la Concorde in Paris, before and after the bloody fires of revolt, with marble horses on either side of the wide boulevard that appears to stretch for miles.

Time spans from 1846 to 1852, then drops briefly back to the opening scene to make the heart ache for the naiveté of youthful passions. Herzen - Brían F. O'Byrne in layers of compelling emotions - emerges from a small but pivotal position to the ambivalent moral center of the cycle.

We begin and end at his estate outside Moscow, where our friends of the landed gentry argue about the immortality of the soul and the quality of the coffee. This time, servants not only change scenery; some carry birch trees and wave them, slowly, becoming anonymous images of iconic Russian landscape.

Most of the two hours and 45 minutes are spent in exile, in Paris and Nice with the Herzens, in a German spa with Belinsky (a less boyish Billy Crudup), the increasingly tuberculous literary critic who is "sick of utopias" and wants a "course of action." He also wants a handsome dressing gown.

Women, who seemed a bit too "Little Women" in the first section, have far more fascinating things to do here. Bourgeois marriage is under scrutiny - this time, for both sexes - which gives the radiant Jennifer Ehle, as Herzen's wife, a lighthearted liaison with a friend (Martha Plimpton) and a more serious affair with George Herwegh (David Harbour), a romantic German poet indulged by his rich Jewish wife (Bianca Amato).

Amy Irving, hidden beneath a maternal scowl in "Voyage," blossoms here as the high-spirited sensualist and estranged wife of wealthy poet Nicholas Ogarev (Josh Hamilton). Herzen's mother (Patricia Connolly) is shocked by the casual elegance of the servant classes in Europe.

Ethan Hawke buzzes in and out as Bakunin, a strangely appealing enthusiast on his way to becoming a famous anarchist. Richard Easton, central to Bakunin's family in the first part, returns briefly for a riveting cameo as a messenger with terrible news.

Early in "Shipwrecked," a friend delivers the exciting news that Russia has its first word in the European lexicon. That word, intelligentsia, is defined as "a uniquely Russian phenomenon, the intellectual opposition considered as a social class."

Not long afterward, some of these same people ignore a shirtless beggar in the street. "I'm afraid bread got left out of the theory," says a bitter Herzen. "... Prose is our strong point, prose and abstraction." He also questions the pretension - "a conceit beyond vulgarity" - for people to believe they can arrange the happiness for those who come after them.


By Tom Stoppard, directed by Jack O'Brien for Lincoln Center Theater. Tickets $65 to $100. Call 212-239-6200. Seen at preview last Friday. ("Part Three, Salvage" opens Feb. 15.)


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