Theater archives

Steppes Toward Chaos


In his posthumous novel Dead Souls, Nikolay Gogol famously compared Russia to a runaway troika, with its passengers huddled together in terror and no driver to control the three rampaging horses pulling it this way and that across the vast, trackless steppes. Gogol’s image still rings true today; you may well feel like one of the helpless travelers in his imaginary troika when you visit The Coast of Utopia, Tom Stoppard’s three-evening study of the thinkers who prepared the way for the Russian Revolution. It’s evident even from seeing only the first installment, Voyage, that as you watch what’s essentially a set of simple domestic scenes, huge events are happening all around, of which the characters give you only an occasional glimpse; they shift, rejecting and realigning with each other as the story shifts focus and its topics shift from philosophy to politics to literature to love, and its tone from realism to symbolism to high satire to sentiment. After an hour or so, being at the mercy of history’s flood tides seems trivial compared to being at the mercy of Stoppard’s ever questioning, ever delving, ever articulating brain. And this is only, in effect, the first act. We know where Russian history will wind up, but only those who saw the London production know where Stoppard’s mind may go next.

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 distaste—so 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.

Another father-son conflict, with equally troubling historical implications, is the core of Julia Cho’s small-scale but beautifully sustained play Durango, being given at the Public Theater in an equally beautiful production by Chay Yew. Cho’s writing here displays a balance and compassion more genuinely Chekhovian than anything in Stoppard’s Russia. A Korean American widower, laid off by downsizing, takes his two sons on a road trip to cover up his joblessness; he discovers in its course that both sons have secrets to cover up as well, while the deeper motive behind the trip turns out to be the biggest secret yet. Cho uses this seemingly familiar material to touch a wide variety of bases, so that her terse, intimate scenes constantly reach out to embrace larger meanings without ever falsifying her characters. The typically American aspects of the story get constantly refreshed by their juxtaposition with the father’s old-country mores, giving the evening a quintessential quality without any recourse to pumped-up language or abstraction.

Cho’s free-form technique, too, displays the joyous assurance of a writer at the top of her game. One of her elegant devices is to create the figure of the deceased wife for us by having each of the three male principals replay a remembered scene in which he speaks her lines. Yew handles these, like the play’s other departures from realism, with elegant discretion, gracefully abetted by Paul Whitaker’s lighting. James Yaegashi and Jon Norman Schneider are excellent as the sons, and James Saito, his careworn face lined like crackle-glaze porcelain, carries the father’s emotional burdens with moving dignity.