By Christian Viveros-Fauné
By Miriam Felton-Dansky
By Tom Sellar
By Tom Sellar
By Jessica Dawson
By Tom Sellar
By R. C. Baker
By Tom Sellar
Stoppard's focal figures are the family and friends of Michael Bakunin (Ethan Hawke), the aristocratic scion who begins Voyage as a disputatious young artillery officer with a taste for idealist philosophy and ends it as a near voluntary exile in Berlin, by which time he has worked his way intellectually through Kant, Schelling, Fichte, and Hegel, all the while disheartening his father (Richard Easton), a classic Enlightenment-bred liberal, and thoroughly disrupting the marital hopes of his four sisters, who allow him to do so with a dramaturgic efficiency that Stoppard never quite manages to make convincing. Liubov (Jennifer Ehle) and the married Varenka (Martha Plimpton) ditch lover and husband, respectively, for the repressed, tubercular philosopher Stankevich (David Harbour). Pert Tatiana (Kellie Overbey) and demure Alexandra (Annie Purcell) engage in flirtations with the dapper novelist-in-embryo Turgenev (Jason Butler Harner) while fixating on the penniless, obsessive literary critic Belinsky (Billy Crudup), himself fixated on a peasant slut (Jennifer Lyon). Both Michael and Stankevich, meantime, are pursued by the determined coquette Natalie Bayer (Mia Barron), egged on by her conniving mother (Patricia Connolly).
This tangled undergrowth of affectional conflicts, dense as the foliage in a William Morris wallpaper pattern, is just the background. Overlaid on it are the young men's intellectual debates, carried on with a traditionally Stoppardian blend of abstraction and japery, about literature, politics, the nature of reality, and the purpose of life. Often exhilarating in themselves, these discussions never seem to belong to the same vision of life as the romantic entanglements. (Heartbreak House was Shaw's attempt to write a Chekhov play; Voyage often suggests Chekhov's misbegotten attempt to write a Shaw play.) The debates perpetually get sidetracked or postponed, giving way to the love affairs, which contradict or distract from them. While the love scenes are treated tenderly, with gentle mockery of the youthful characters' passionate confusion, the intellectual flights tend to be depicted with a sort of sympathetic distasteso many castles in the air being built by highly intelligent fools with no knowledge of architecture. Stoppard also can't resist the occasional temptation to have authority figures like Bakunin's father or the essayist Chaadaev (David Cromwell) tell off the young rhetoricians in terms that sound uncomfortably like the playwright summing up the evening's lesson for us.
Yet it's hard, thus far, to see what the lesson is. Voyage presents the life of 19th-century Russia as a contrast between the slightly stupefied bliss of landholders like the Bakunins on their paradisiacal country estates and the hectic, nerve-jangling, gossip-infested Moscow life of Act II. The larger issues that made Russia a social, political, and economic mess ripe for overthrow are complained of but barely explored: A few brushes with censorship, a bare mention of the draft, and a brief Siberian exile for the doughty political thinker Herzen (Brían F. O'Byrne), which seems to have done him no more harm than a pleasure trip, are as bad as it gets. What motivates figures like Bakunin and Belinsky, apart from a generic drive toward romanticism and youthful rebellion, remains mysterious. The former comes off as arrogantly selfish and capricious, the latter as a solipsist hopelessly ensnared in his own thought processes. And this is true despite the performances, since Hawke and Crudup are doing far and away the most commanding, as well as the most convincing, work on a stage crowded with capable and often vibrant performers. Easton, Cromwell, and Barron make particularly strong impressions, and David Pittu does a neat comic cameo as a self-important Moscow journalist. The one weak link, surprisingly, is Harbour, whose speeches seem stilted and inorganic.
Jack O'Brien's production, struggling mightily to lay clean tracks for Stoppard's elaborately layered mesh of encounters, succeeds in keeping the characters' trajectories comprehensible but, like Stoppard, never wholly creates the stormy atmosphere of the vast nation that engulfs and perplexes these riven souls. O'Brien's opening image is his most striking: a stage-wide line of serfs against a cloudy horizon, with Herzen above them, deep in contemplation. It feels slightly like a bait and switch against the procession of skillfully but conventionally staged scenes that follow. Still, it's hard to imagine an alternative approach: Stoppard's drama, so rich in details and so fecund in ideas, thus far seems almost as centerless as czarist Russia itself.