Hopeful expectations for the forthcoming segments of the scampish, fast-moving British playwright’s troika, with the centerpiece, “Shipwreck,” and the conclusion, “Salvage,” scheduled to join the first portion, pulsed high enough to provide a theatergoer with the theatrical equivalent of an adrenaline rush merely contemplating the heights the overall work might reach.
“Shipwreck” has now joined “Voyage” at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater, where the two plays will be performed in rotation until Jan. 30, when the closer, “Salvage,” begins previews in preparation for an opening on Thursday, Feb. 15.
Only then will it be possible to fully evaluate Stoppard’s overall achievement, with the impact of the extensively revised American production, for the most part wonderfully and adroitly directed by Jack O’Brien, possibly being greater than was the case when the cycle debuted in London four seasons ago.
Lincoln Center has extended the cycle’s run through May 13 with Saturday marathons, in which all three plays will be performed in a single day, beginning on Feb. 24.
On nine consecutive Saturdays “Voyage” will begin at 11 a.m., followed first by “Shipwreck” at 3:30 p.m., and finally, by “Salvage, at 8 p.m.
Any writer naming a play “Shipwreck” could be said to be providing critics and audiences with ammunition to be used against him, and the resourceful and prolific Stoppard is not entirely an exception.
Remarkable as so much of “The Coast of Utopia” is, the playwright, who soon turns 70, hasn’t totally avoided the traps he set himself when we went about to create an informal, even glib, recounting of the events which led up to the Russian Revolution, and, especially, the stories of the men and women who got it all going.
Perhaps unavoidably, “Shipwreck” comes across as slightly less cohesive, a bit less well-balanced, and even a touch out of control when compared to the beautifully sculpted and majestically delivered “Voyage” which preceded it.
Even the direction of the normally unwavering O’Brien, as restrained as it is inventive on most occasions, wobbles a bit here, particularly in Act One, when those Russian movers and shakers Michael Bakunin, Ivan Turgenev, Nicholas Ogarev, the half-Russian, half-German Alexander Herren, and their friends and lovers, visit Paris, a city which, previously, they, like many upper class citizens of their ilk, mainly admired from a distance.
For 10 or 12 minutes midway through its first half, “Shipwreck” resembles a camp version of “Les Miserables,” complete with tumbrels, collapsing equestrian statues, a braying soprano with a patriotic ditty and at least one stellar actor rushing about waving a scarlet banner.
Elsewhere, in the midst of a string of rather banal domestic scenes, involving the marriages and amours, mainly of two couples, Herren and his wife, Natalie on one hand and German poet George Herwegh and his wife, Emma, on the other, Stoppard’s writing skates a bit to what might be described, albeit unkindly, as soap operatic.
These moments are saved, in some measure, by the excellent work turned in by Brian F. O’Byrne and Jennifer Ehle as the Herzens and, only very slightly less effectively, David Harbour and Bianca Amato as the Hegweghs.
At one very odd point in one of the more or less cozy family-oriented scenes some of them set in Imperial Russia, others in Germany and others still in France, O’Brien has his actors engage in a bout of overlapping dialogue that would do credit to the late director, Robert Altman, followed immediately by an equally bizarre moment of silence.
Oddities such as these tend to rob “Shipwreck” of the smoothly flowing pace that was so much a part of the success of “Voyage.”
Some of the “Shipwreck” actors are carrying their “Voyage” roles into the second play with Ethan Hawke’s young Bakunin, Billy Crudup’s volatile literary critic, Vissarion Belinsky, and Josh Hamilton’s Ogarev join O’Byrne’s Herzen and Harner’s dreamily larval Turgenev coming across as richly enhanced expansions of the parts the actors introduced in the first play.
Other members of O’Brien’s starry company have taken on new roles in “Shipwreck” including Amy Irving’s edgy comedic portrait of poet Ogarev estranged wife, Maria, Martha Plimpton as Natalie Herzen’s “friend,” Natasha Tuchkov, Patricia Connolly’s effective cameo as Herzen’s mother, Madame Haag, and Robert Stanton as Dresden lawyer Franz Otto.
David Pittu is a standout in a brace of keenly etched small roles, first the arrogant French waiter, Benoit, and, shortly later, the beautifully singing Italian servant, Rocca.
Special mention must be made of veteran actor and Tony Award winner Richard Easton who, after falling seriously ill during the preview period of “Voyage,” recovered in time to open and give a sterling performance as landowner Alexander Bakunin, Michael’s father.
Now, Easton turns up briefly, late in Act Two of “Shipwreck,” playing with gusto Leonty Ibayev, the Russian Consul General in Nice, a city a surprising projection informs us was in the 1850s, when the scene is set, a part of Italy, as opposed to France.
The sets provided by Bob Crowley and Scott Pask for “Shipwrecked” are nearly as fluid and as evocative as those they came up with for “Voyage,” but this time there’s no single item as striking as the seemingly ice-sculpted “onion domes” suspended over the stage in the first play’s second act.
Nor is there any single moment as magical or as evocative as the skating scene in “Voyage,” or, for that matter, the opening moments of the first play in which the stage, lined with dummies dressed as 19th century Russian serfs, appeared to contain literally hundreds of souls.
Maybe it’s only logical and to be expected that “Shipwreck,” for all its many virtues, would be a bit of a dip after “Voyage,” since it neither begins nor ends the venture’s long, complicated tale.
It is to be hoped that the relatively minor shortcomings of “Shipwreck” don’t dampen the high hopes that “Salvage,” the final panel of Stoppard’s theatrical triptych might carry “the Coast of Utopia” to the greatness to which it so obviously aspires.
Taken on its own, alas, “Shipwreck” indicates “The Coast of Utopia” could itself make use of a bit of salvaging.