Coast ... to Coast ... to Coast

Special Features   Coast ... to Coast ... to Coast
 
Director Jack O'Brien continues a felicitous collaboration with Tom Stoppard as he shepherds the playwright's sweeping epic, The Coast of Utopia, to an unprecedented Broadway engagement.
Josh Hamilton and Jack O'Brien in rehearsal for The Coast of Utopia.
Josh Hamilton and Jack O'Brien in rehearsal for The Coast of Utopia. Photo by Paul Kolnik

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The Invention of Love was followed by five years of silence from Tom Stoppard, who spent four of those years in the stacks sorting through the seeds of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution till a new play came forth Aug. 3, 2002, at London's National.

The Coast of Utopia is really three plays, three hours each and nautically named. With breaks for lunch, dinner and good behavior, they ran from one 11 o'clock to the other.

"If a single new play by Tom Stoppard is a major theatrical event, how does one describe three at once?" pondered Paul Goodman.

"The theatrical event of the decade," sister critic Lizzie Loveridge said. "A stupendous achievement," seconded happy camper Clive Barnes.

But a heavy meal is a heavy meal, and the never-lightweight Stoppard serves up quite a feast for thought. So, for these shores, Lincoln Center is exercising strict portion control, offering Coast in three separate courses at the Vivian Beaumont Theater: Voyage on Nov. 27 [rescheduled from Nov. 5 due to illness in the cast], Shipwreck on Dec. 21 and Salvage on Feb. 15, 2007. "I love that we're not opening all three at once," says one of the cooler heads prevailing, Jack O'Brien, the director. "It's almost more than you can take. Now, in London, in retrospect, they think they shouldn't have opened them all in one day. It's too much for the critics and the audiences to assimilate."

Despite the spectacular sweep of political clash and change, there is much to savor here, as Stoppard has rounded out and humanized — done a Chekhovian rinse of sorts on — the historical personages he found in "Russian Thinkers." Isaiah Berlin's collection of essays on a band of mostly high-born philosophers — cerebral rabble-rousers trying to change a political system with minds as their only weapon — here becomes "a gang of five," resisting the repressive reign of Tsar Nicholas I: Alexander Herzen, the radical theorist and editor (Brían F. O'Byrne); Michael Bakunin, the aristocrat-turned-anarchist (Ethan Hawke); Vissarion Belinsky, the literary critic (Billy Crudup); Ivan Turgenev, the novelist (Jason Butler Harner); and Nicholas Ogarev, the poet (Josh Hamilton). The Russians coined a word for this motley lot: "intelligentsia . . . the intellectual opposition considered as a social force," as Berlin put it.

"I've a feeling Coast is going to land on audiences like a parallel universe," predicts O'Brien. "What happens to these guys is, frankly, what happens to us all. You grow up with a group of people. Some ascend. Some descend. Some triumph. Some die. You rarely see that in the theatre. You rarely see people 200 years ago moving as you do."

Once all three plays are up and operative, there'll be weekend marathon performances, but O'Brien suspects audiences will seep into the saga. "What I think will happen is that people will see the first and be enchanted and say, 'Well, I'd still like to see the second.' Well, the second one, honey, has all the fireworks. That's the French revolution. That's all the marriages blowing up. That's all the personal and emotional intrigues going on. It really grabs you. It's unbelievably moving, and, based on that, people will want to see them all. By the time the third one opens, they're ready for a straight runthrough."

This trilogy celebrates O'Brien's third outing with Stoppard. "Hapgood, I guess, was my baptism by fire. Whatever success it had was attributable to the fact that Stockard Channing got a movie that delayed us six months. During that time, Tom Stoppard kindly, gently and persistently spooned quantum physics into my brain because, believe me, I didn't get it. But I did get something about his work. When you're dealing with someone as brilliant and as all-encompassing as he is, you wanna show off for him when actually he speaks for himself much louder. That's a tradition of Tom's. He's in that tradition of philosopher–thinkers that go from Shakespeare through Shaw down to him, really. I think that it is more important for me to supply what isn't there.

"The thing about Hapgood is that I felt spies who must trust swiftly and analyze exactly are not unlike actors or people in the theatre. We know a phony when we see one, and, if you're onstage with one, God help you. There's something both instantly intimate and a bit sexy about that ability to connect quickly with people, and I found my own way into it.

"I found my own way into The Invention of Love. I felt very personally about that play. I remember myself as an undergraduate, being at the university among my peers away from my home — how dazzling it all was, how beautiful it all was, how seductive it was. We didn't know what we were doing sexually in those times, except unfurling our feathers for the first time and seeing what that felt like. So I felt my way through that one, too."

The humanism with which O'Brien imbued The Invention of Love — seconded by not one but two Tony-winning A.E. Housmans on board (Richard Easton and Robert Sean Leonard, old and young alike) — put him first in line to bring The Coast of Utopia to Broadway.

"I didn’t go [to see it in London] with the idea that it was my piece," he admits with what one soon learns is chronic modesty. "I went just to experience it — and I was overwhelmed. There were sections — as there'd been with The Invention of Love — when I found myself uncontrollably in tears and not knowing why. There were lives on that stage that kept erupting that were galvanizing to me. It's taken two and a half years to wrap my mind around this trilogy.

"I've gone to school on Peter Wood [Hapgood], Richard Eyre [The Invention of Love] and Trevor Nunn [The Coast of Utopia], three of the best directors in the world. I've had a chance to see what they've done. Then, I've had a chance to think, study, reflect and do what I call the American versions of these three plays." See: chronic modesty on parade.

So have O'Brien and Stoppard learned their lesson on trilogies? Not atall, atall, as Barry Fitzgerald might say — but they did learn to cross mediums to continue. Stoppard has started a three-part screen adaptation of Philip Pullman's cult epic, "His Dark Materials." In O'Brien's case, he has only to hang a sharp right at Lincoln Center's North Plaza to make his debut at The Met with Puccini's Il Trittico. They come in threes, these trilogies.

Tom Stoppard and Jack O'Brien
Tom Stoppard and Jack O'Brien Photo by Paul Kolnik
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