The Coast of Utopia: Part III-Salvage

BRAIN DRAIN O’Byrne, center, takes a rest from thinking.

BRAIN DRAIN O’Byrne, center, takes a rest from thinking. Photograph: Paul Kolnik

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

“Previously, on The Coast of Utopia...” How one longs for an HBO-like recap of the first five hours of Tom Stoppard’s three-play epic about Russian pre-Revolutionary thinkers and doers. Who married? Who died? Who embraced Marxism? Settling in for the long final stretch, Salvage, one reflects on the ups and downs of this megadrama centered around 19th-century radical Michael Bakunin (Ethan Hawke), theorist Alexander Herzen (Brian F. O’Byrne) and their circle of migr radicals, who fight (when not speechifying) to overthrow monarchs and emancipate serfs.

One also reflects on how this history play--cum--play of ideas has run the gamut from sublime to ridiculous. On the one hand, Stoppard writes elegant, inspired diatribes on progress and ideology, and how the road to hell is paved with good isms. Then again, he seems to take perverse pleasure in trotting out scores of characters through dozens of antic, poorly dramatized scenes that span decades. He can have you on the edge of your seat, as when Bakunin rhapsodizes over the spiritual rationale for anarchism, but he can’t write a single line to catch your heart or make you care about these cardboard characters’ lives.

Salvage concerns the final 15 years of Herzen’s career, as he publishes a revolutionary newspaper, raises children in London and finds his gospel of peaceful progress ridiculed by “the new men”: nihilists and bloody-minded Marxists. Martha Plimpton and Jennifer Ehle offer fire and ice, respectively, as women in Herzen’s life. There are somber scenes as our hero and his Romantic friends see their ideals fade into obsolescence, and the modern horrors of Stalin and Hitler looming on the horizon. But one wonders where Stoppard the practical dramatist is in all this. It takes a captain who’s able to jettison excess cargo to steer such an unwieldy vessel through a storm. — David Cote

Vivian Beaumont Theater . By Tom Stoppard. Dir. Jack O’Brien. With ensemble cast.