Thursday, February 15, 2007
THE COAST OF UTOPIA
“Just your ordinary nine-act play.” Robert Benchley in re: STRANGE INTERLUDE.
As SALVAGE, the third and mercifully final part of Tom Stoppard’s magnum opus THE COAST OF UTOPIA staggered to a close, Mr. Benchley’s words popped into my head, and I kind of smiled to myself. Apart from a few moments featuring Josh Hamilton and the sublime Martha Plimpton, there wasn’t a lot else to smile about.
Mr. Stoppard’s mammoth trilogy about the intellectual history of the 19th Century and the men who laid the philosophic foundation for the Russian Revolution starts well. The first play, VOYAGE, was a very entertaining evening in the theatre, stimulating and thought-provoking and moving. The acting was impeccable, and surprising. Billy Crudup’s performance as Bellinsky, the Russian literary critic who has a bad habit of putting his foot in his mouth was a revelation, a real change from the terribly stiff work I’d seen him deliver before. Ethan Hawke was having a grand time as the wildly enthusiastic Michael Bakunin, veering hilariously from one philosophy to another. Director Jack O’Brien keeps the action and the talk lively, and pulls off some wonderful little coups de theatre. If I found there to be a few too many blonde Bakunin sisters to keep track of, I didn’t let it ruin my evening.
What can I say? I liked it a lot. I didn’t feel terribly lost, considering the complexity of the play and the fact that I know next to nothing about Russian history. I seriously considered buying the T-shirt. I was looking forward to Part II, SHIPWRECK.
The first act of SHIPWRECK lived up to the promise of VOYAGE, but there were some danger signs, mostly involving casting. As the trilogy continues, one specific character begins to dominate, a man named Alexander Herzen, unfortunately played by an actor named Brian F. O’Byrne.
It would be no ordinary actor who can make this character engaging, at least as written by Stoppard. The role of Herzen is fiendishly difficult: lots and lots of long monologues that are supposed to explain complex philosophic positions and give lots and lots of historic background, interspersed with scenes dealing with mundane things like his wife’s infidelity and other domestic issues. And Mr. O’Byrne is simply not up to it. He is unable to make me give a damn about the man he is playing, or even to make me believe that he has a vague idea of what the hell he is supposed to be talking about. He might as well be reciting pi. I have never come so close to standing up and screaming at an actor to please shut the fuck up as when I sat writhing through O’Byrne’s unforgivably inept handling of the final scenes of the increasingly aptly entitled SHIPWRECK.
And it didn’t get better in SALVAGE. If SHIPWRECK was at least half interesting, at least until O’Byrne started jabbering, SALVAGE is a near-total failure. Ceaseless senseless oral diarrhea of historical data by O’Byrne, more characters introduced for a few minutes and then never heard from again, and less and less of actual interest. There’s the occasional sign of life provided by the return of Ethan Hawke as Bakunin (Hawke’s Bakunin is, by the way, the only character in the entire trilogy who gets convincingly older as time allegedly passes), Jennifer Ehle as Herzen’s housekeeper, and most especially by Josh Hamilton and Martha Plimpton as the writer Ogarev and his wife. Hamilton and Plimpton play the only interesting and engaging characters in this part of the trilogy. They actually seem to have an interest and affection for each other, and their interest in each other is infectious; you can feel the audience in the Beaumont start to react to something actually approaching energy on that stage.
It doesn’t last long. O’Byrne’s Herzen is soon gabbling again, and the play finally finally finally ends, with some ultimate gibberish from Herzen about how the important thing is to do the best you can in the period you’re in, and a really insulting final line: “There’s a storm coming.” Get it boys and girls? The storm of THE REVOLUTION!!!!!
There’s a sense of exhaustion to the proceedings, not just in the audience but onstage. Hawke and Ehle and Hamilton and Plimpton apart, the rest of the cast don’t register as clearly as they have in the earlier segments, at least partly because Stoppard is so busy trying to cram so much history into the play that the characters never come alive as anything other than names to be heard about once or twice and then forgotten about. Even the direction seems tired: the final tableau and musical flourish reminded me of nothing so much as Disney’s Hall of Presidents.
So that was it. Was it worth it? Yes and no. I’m glad to have seen it, certainly, but I can only say I enjoyed about half of it. My brother once described reading Norman Mailer’s big book HARLOT’S GHOST in this way: “The first 650 pages were wonderful.” I kind of feel the same way about THE COAST OF UTOPIA: the first 4 and a half hours were wonderful. That the remaining 4 and a half hours felt more like another 12 and a half hours is a big problem, one that Stoppard and O’Brien haven’t come anywhere near solving.