In addition to making his feature-film directing debut with "Hairspray," aiming to start shooting this fall, he's in contact with Tom Stoppard about script revisions for the New York bow of the ambitious nine-hour Coast of Utopia triptych.
O'Brien told Playbill.com the three plays (Voyage, Shipwreck and Salvage) about political, ideological and literary figures from 19th-century Russian history, will play Lincoln Center Theater's Vivian Beaumont Theater in fall 2006, which LCT confirmed. The LCT staging was previously announced for 2005, but rewrites and O'Brien's schedule are among factors bumping it to a later date. Lincoln Center has not yet announced specific dates or a schedule.
Stoppard, O'Brien said, "is doing an enormous amount of work on the script, and he's been wonderfully collaborative about that. Don't forget, they were staging it while he was writing it. It's a trilogy…so it really does need a little distance by everybody, including Tom. I think he, in his own words, was ready to what he called 'take it back' and rethink it. He's done a lot of that."
The works first appeared under the direction of Trevor Nunn in 2002 at the National Theatre in England.
"I'm very excited about it," O'Brien told Playbill.com. "I've been lucky with Tom's work because I've had the advantage of going to school on great directors like Richard Eyre and Trevor Nunn and seeing what they've done. Tom's pieces always take a lot of time to absorb and sift down. He's arguably the greatest writer of our century, for the stage. Doing them off the top of your head, it's very hard to conceive that. So I'm very grateful that I've got this time to sift it down and work with [designer Bob] Crowley [of The Invention of Love] again and sort of see what we can come up with." O'Brien said it was accurate to view the planned New York staging as the world premiere of the revised version of the works. "It won't be the nine hours [it was in England]," he said. "I'm hoping to get at least an hour out of it. It's three evenings. The 'marathon' [of all three together] will only be able to be done once or twice. In a week, I don't think you can sustain that much."
Of his continuing relationship with Stoppard, whose Invention of Love he directed for LCT, O'Brien said, "It's one of the most miraculous collaborations of my life — I can't believe I'm having it, but I am and I'm very grateful."
O'Brien won a 2004 Tony for his work on Henry IV, also for Lincoln Center.
After the three-part Coast, O'Brien said he's working for The Metropolitan Opera on another famous trio — Puccini's Il trittico, consisting of Il tabarro, Suor Angelica, Gianni Schicchi.
The Coast of Utopia consists of three plays titled Voyage, Shipwreck and Salvage and is centered on the political and philosophical idealism and debates of mid-nineteenth-century Russia, examining the movements that excited artists and thinkers in those days. The show moves chronologically on from the 1830s, when the great Romantic poet Pushkin was still alive and his epic poem "Eugene Onegin" was all the rage in educated circles.
The main characters are the anarchist Michael Bakunin (played by Douglas Henshall in London) who was to challenge Marx (played by Paul Ritter) for the soul of the masses; Ivan Turgenev (played by Guy Henry), author of some of the most enduring works in Russian literature; the brilliant, erratic young critic Vissarion Belinsky (played by Will Keen); and Alexander Herzen (played by Stephen Dillane).
The critical reaction to The Coast Of Utopia was mixed, with The Evening Standard praising it unreservedly while the Guardian referred to its as "heroically ambitious and wildly uneven." The Times regretted the "longeurs, its dips of energy, its relentlessly protracted arguments," yet also found it "refreshingly ambitious" and referred to director Trevor Nunn's "usual skill" and concluded that "Stoppard's piece does sing. You leave it sated, exhausted, impressed." The Daily Telegraph said "this awesomely dramatic canvas must be counted a courageous failure rather than a knock-out success."
LCT has produced Stoppard's Hapgood and Arcadia.