Reviewed by David Spencer
Is it a test of your character, your taste, your interest in the world at large, to confront a highly intellectual play—much less a trilogy—such as British playwright Tom Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia? And if you find yourself not liking it all that much, thinking it more esoteric than entertaining, are you to be the one found wanting? And despite all it has to say, all it has to offer, if you find yourself having not that much to say in response or analysis, is it merely because, with your middle-bow sensibility, you cannot think any other way (a notion in fact put forth by one of the characters, in a very similar context)?
All through his formidable career Stoppard's plays have been raising these questions, and the answers always vary. At times the challenge of them is invigorating and at times the plays are truly great, worth all the extracurricular effort. But as I look back on his body of work, I also find that those are times when he has a good story to tell as well. (i.e. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Hamlet from the POV of perhaps its two most minor featured characters. Terrific, if done right.) But The Coast of Utopia...well...
First of all, to give you an idea how dense the play is, understand that inserted into your Playbill is a synopsis. That you might need a synopsis for a contemporary play written in English, even an unusually literary and dense one, might be construed as a red flag. Then there's the synopsis itself. All through Act One of Part One, Voyage, I found myself struggling to follow a narrative thread and certain I was missing it. Lo, at intermission, I read the so-called synopsis and to my astonishment found that I hadn't missed anything. There simply wasn't much of a thread to miss—the play moves from one conversation to the next, one juxtaposition of characters to the next, from the Russian countryside to Moscow to Paris and back, but the story is vague. Even the synopsis is mostly a rough sketch of the history Stoppard draws upon.
And what is that history? No less than the formation of the Russian literary community that would come to be known as its intelligentsia. Stoppard's purpose is to demonstrate the dichotomy between the raw, turbulent country's growing pains and the intellectuals who observed that history in the making, moved less to act in concert with the groundswell of revolution that to write stories set against its backdrop, and editorials that sometimes put them at the mercy of the very repressive leadership trying to keep from being overthrown. Stoppard shows how these literary lights gathered, crossed paths, influenced one another, with occasional detours to their personal and family lives. But the kind of what happened next? story that brought you back with bated breath to the subsequent evenings of Nicholas Nickleby or Angels In America? That, alas, no. Nor even the puzzle intricacies of the interconnecting plays in The Norman Conquests. More than anything else, The Coast of Utopia is a play of ideas, about the formation of ideas. If Stoppard means here, in part, to be a teacher, and educate us where we may have little or no knowledge, perhaps even to the point of whetting our appetites to read further on our own, he may well be successful. But as a storyteller, he seems to think the crossed paths of history are sufficient. Dangerous assumption, I think. (George S. Kaufman: "God writes a lousy third act.") The dialogue is witty, urbane and believable (even, amazingly, funny; Stoppard esoterica gets laughs); the concepts are sophisticated, examined from all perspectives and fodder for rich thought, the production, on Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont stage is, under the direction of Jack O'Brien, one of epic grandeur and operatic proportion, and the performances—
—well, they're all quite respectable and some far better than that, though the tacit promise of breathtaking portraiture (the kind of thing we did see when Ron Liebman and Kathleen Chalfant took hold of Angels or when both the debut and return casts of the Royal Shakespeare Company mainstays performed Nickleby, transforming some of its players into soon-familiar American faces and others into outright stars)...that's not quite in evidence either, save for Brian F. O'Byrne as Alexander Herzen and perhaps Jennifer Ehle as his wife Natalie. As for his counterparts and co-stars, a group as notable and varied as Billy Crudup, Ethan Hawke, Amy Irving, Martha Plimpton, Robert Stanton and even the formidable Richard Easton...there are no virtuoso turns to burn into your theatrical memory. All offer fine and distinguished work...but, selfishly, if I'm going to invest eight or so hours of my life in a trilogy (not counting intermissions and travel), and do so on faith, knowing from the top that I'm there for the duration...I want some memories worth holding onto.
The good news is, Part Two is more compelling than Part One—partly because, after indoctrination, you understand the rhythms and texture of the trilogy and are properly braced; and partly because, in the second play, there's a little more action, a little more on the line, for violence is in the streets and lives are in danger. There's even the intrusion of unkind, arbitrary fate (thanks to history) playing a hand. And if Part Three proves some kind of catharsis, I'll be glad to announce that for some who can immerse themselves in this panoramic literary conceit, the game might indeed be worth the candle.
But for now, The Coast of Utopia feels very much like the kind of play William Goldman (in his legendary and mandatory theatre book The Season) identified as a "snob hit." And not even the kind of snob hit that is genuinely pleasing to higher brow audiences across the board—but rather the one we tough through because it's an event like no other, it's "important," and if we're serious about theatre, we're supposed to be supportive when a true master reaches for the stars.
But that sense of obligation makes it a little like a classroom assignment too. Admittedly, I wouldn't trade it for the Cliff's Notes version, and I'd feel deprived not to have been there just to see what all the excitement's about...but I sure wouldn't want to take a test on it either...