New York City Theater
"The Coast of Utopia, Part III—Salvage"
Tom Stoppard, a British-Jewish playwright, has moved ahead steadily with a body of work, so that today he occupies a place of eminence in the world of theater. In fact, one might say that he is now Britain’s foremost playwright. And currently, with his most ambitious piece to date, a trilogy called “The Coast of Utopia,” he has taken New York by storm. Theatergoers fight for tickets at Lincoln Center, where the three related dramas (“Voyage,” “Shipwreck,” and “Salvage”) are playing in repertory (through to mid-May). The final piece of the trio, “Salvage,” has recently opened, rounding out the epic tale.
Stoppard’s plays have generally ranged far afield in style, content and genre, but of late are primarily concerned with philosophical questions. He is preoccupied with the nature of time and with the effect of one historic period upon a later era. This time around, Stoppard’s trilogy focuses on the Russian intellectuals of the nineteenth century--and how their writings impacted on the tumultuous 20th century. He has, he confesses, been influenced by the eminent Oxford scholar Isaiah Berlin, and Berlin’s in-depth analyses of the period and its players.
Stoppard’s three plays range in time from 1834 to 1868. Focus is on one Alexander Herzen and the arc of his life. In the earlier two plays, a circle of bright young men, with Herzen at its center (mostly university graduates and privileged members of the small upper class) are deeply influenced by the intellectual ferment in the West and hope to effect reform in their own feudal country. (See my earlier review in this publication and web site of these two plays.) But the aborted French revolution in 1848 destroys their hopes and induces cynicism and disappointment.
The two earlier pieces were stunning in content and production. Director Jack O’Brien had staged Stoppard’s epic with a broad sweeping motion, moving his huge cast across the stage and never missing a beat. The magnificent cast (which included Billy Crudup, Richard Easton, Jennifer Ehle, Josh Hamilton, Ethan Hawke, Amy Irving, Brian O’Byrne, and Martha Plimpton) added even more dazzle. The viewer actually felt as if he were in the heart of Russia, on its country estates, later in the elegant drawing rooms of France, Germany, and England. It was like a vast symphonic piece, yet with each character sharply etched, each instrument playing its solo. Domestic chaos was intriguingly interspersed with serious philosophical and political discussions, as the characters played out their lives.
But now we come to “Salvage,” play number three, a decided let-down after the excitement of the earlier two. Perhaps this cannot be helped, as the third play represents a time of disillusion, just before the new revolutionaries (with menacing promise of the century to come) arrive on the scene. O’Brien’s touch is impeccable, his vision flawless, his stage sets magnificent, but “Salvage” is inevitably a wearisome, slow-moving drama.
The ongoing dialogues are always interesting, but in a bookish way, as characters expound their views of politics and the nature of man. We must confess that we found ourselves nodding off during “Salvage,” something which could never have happened in the dynamic earlier plays of the trilogy. Yet Tom Stoppard cannot be denied the acclaim he receives. He is a force with which to be reckoned. And he has met his equal in director Jack O’Brien and the Lincoln Center productions.
-- Irene Backalenick
February 18, 2007