Sir Tom Stoppard's fact-based musing about five revolutionary free(dom)-thinkers from 19th century Russia is cerebral speculation, given spectacular splash 'n' dash by director Jack O'Brien and his design team — and the human heartbeat of a committed cast of 44.
"Epic is the word that falls to mind," said O'Brien, opting to skip the false modesty after such an Herculean enterprise. "It has been unique in the sense that there has never been anything like it before — and, I'm convinced, there'll never be anything like it that follows.
"Nobody but somebody like Tom would conceive of a mountain this big, and nobody but us would be silly enough to want to climb it. Oh, we had such a good time. There has been such a sense of achievement and bonding and mutual respect and collaboration among the artists who quote-created-unquote this. There were three different lighting designers, poets all of them [Brian MacDevitt lit the first part (Voyage), Kenneth Posner the second (Shipwreck) and Natasha Katz the third (Salvage), and the dazzlingly abstract sets throughout represented the teamwork of Bob Crowley and Scott Pask.]
Given the operatic flourish of this production, it is probably not surprising that, in three weeks, O'Brien will only have to walk across Lincoln Center plaza to stage his next trilogy: Puccini's Il Trittico — for The Metropolitan Opera. But first a trip to Disneyland?
"No, but I'm actually going on a cruise to Costa Rica — on The Windstar. I'm so excited about it. I've got black glasses and a big hat and a bunch of books and my scores to Trittico, and I'll just lie in the deckchair and hope they bring me soup occasionally." Stoppard also knows where his next trilogy is coming from: from another medium — from film. He did a three-part adaptation of Philip Pullman's cult epic, "His Dark Materials."
The next Stoppard stage saga to reach New York will be his current London hit, Rock 'n' Roll, which covers 1968-1990 from the double perspective of Prague (where a rock band comes to stand for Communist resistance) and of Cambridge (where the verities of love and death shape three generations of a Marxist philosopher's family). The play won the Critics' Circle Theatre Award as 2006's best, but Sunday during the FireBird reveling it lost the Olivier Award (as did Peter Morgan's also-Broadway-bound Frost/Nixon) to David Harrower's Blackbird, which flies to Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage II April 10.
"Rock 'n' Roll is coming over in November," promised the author, "and I hope it comes over with as many of the cast as possible." [He's talking Rufus Sewell, who has already told the press he plans to be on board, and Brian Cox, whose son Alan is currently representing the family on Broadway — in Translations at the Biltmore.] Stoppard said his lead producers in London, Sonia Friedman and Bob Boyett, are bringing the show over.
As for the epic at hand, "It's quite a relief," admitted Stoppard, and his weary expression seemed to second that motion. He has been a constant at the rehearsals and performances, tinkering and reshaping the text from the London Coast, which dropped anchor at a full nine hours. The American version has been whittled down from that. "They're the same plays, but they're different," said Sir Tom. "I added things. I took things away. It was to do with making things clearer. It was clearer here than it was in London. In London, there was no opportunity to go back and do this because we never had time for that."
Andre Bishop and Bernard Gersten, co-chieftains of Lincoln Center Theater which produced all three installments, were beaming like men who'd spent their bucks wisely and well. "It's virtually sold out," said Gersten. "We're going into an extension April 12."
And, added Bishop, "We've extended it through the middle of May, and we're hoping, hoping to go longer, but we haven't made any decisions on that yet. It's a wonderful play, and it's Jack O'Brien's triumph. He and his designers and his cast have — y'know, it's beyond my being able to say how wonderful it is. This company has been in rehearsal and in performance since the end of August, and they all have worked very hard on it. It's a shorter show now — probably eight hours and 15 minutes — than it was in London."
During that time frame, 35 years of history is sprawled across the stage, and Catherine Zuber's costumes contribute importantly to the period and sweep of the proceedings. "I did a lot of research and thinking about this journey from 1833 to 1868, showing the passage of time," she noted. Fashions change, it seems, and not just Russian fashion because the central characters are constantly on the move, around the world, in exile.
"They tend to be in society, be it French or Italian or British. The first play was more Russian, but the second one was more French, and the third one more British and Swiss," she said.
Like O'Brien, Zuber is hanging a sharp right into opera — Carmen in London and The Ring Cycle in Washington — before returning to her own backyard, the Beaumont, for the first Broadway revival of South Pacific. She couldn't confirm or deny the reigning scuttlebutt: "I dunno, I'm just a costume designer, but, personally, I hope it's with Victoria Clark. (She and Clark won their Tony Awards for The Light in the Piazza.)
The artist among the political minds that are overheating in the three Coast plays — and the character best-known to a contemporary audience, via his plays A Month in the Country and Fortune's Fool — is the novelist Ivan Turgenev, played by Jason Butler Harner with a progressively unruly ‘do — which, clarified the actor, was a compromise on the real thing:. "Turgenev was a full head of gray hair by the time he was 30 so you get a bunch of gray at the end. It's a little bit between Mr. Magoo and Diana Vreeland, I'm afraid."
Hirsute aside, Harner hooked up to the character emotionally. "He tries to see everything from all sides of the equation — he tries to remain objective — and I really admire that about him. I'm a little more active than I think he is. I'm not going to stay out of an argument. That's what I liked about him very much. And I think he's a little bit like Tom Stoppard, Actually — esoteric like Tom. They are very much alike, I think, in how their brains work."
Another Stoppard connection Harner made on the Internet. "His son, Ed Stoppard, just opened on the West End to great reviews, playing Tom Wingfield, opposite Jessica Lange, in The Glass Menagerie." It's a role Harner did with great sensitivity and distinction, with Sally Field, for the Kennedy Center salute to Tennessee Williams, and "I've been on the email a lot with Ed, blatantly telling him 'I found this,' 'I did that.'"
The whole Coast experience is without precedence in Harner's experience. "The closest thing is grad school where you're in something so long. We've been rehearsing since Sept. 5, and Friday the 16th of February was our first day off. Really (other than, like, Christmas)." He spent it, he sheepishly admitted, "sleeping and watching dumb TV.
"Now, we get to just run the damn thing. I'm so happy about that. There are only four of us — Ethan Hawke, Josh Hamilton, Brian O'Byrne and me — who play the same role in all three plays so to get a chance to run all three together is the first chance for us to really see the spectrum of what we're trying to do with our characters. It's a great opportunity."
Hawke is keenly anticipating as well the marathon weekends when all three plays are performed back to back. "I think it's going to be really amazing," he predicted. "We're only going to do it about nine times. I think audience and company alike are going to feel like something special happened. We the company are really looking forward to it."
He plays Michael Bakunin, the aristocrat-turned-anarchist, who starts out strong in the first play and progressively loses ground to Alexander Herzen (O'Byrne), the radical theorist and editor who eventually becomes the towering, unifying figure of the trilogy. By the time the third play rolls in, a stint in Siberia has sapped Bakunin's rebellious juices, reducing Hawke to some very creative character-acting. "Right now, the third play is probably my favorite because it's the freshest. The paint is still wet from that one.
"We're all as good as our part. I've got a great part — a really challenging part that asks more of you than you can deliver — and, that way, you get to reach the wall of your talent.
"You notice that. It's so much fun to do — so complicated and rich and interesting — and the history of this is so thrilling. The opportunity to play somebody over 30 years of their life gives you a chance to see a lot of their insides as human beings and into their world."
The "journey," as they say in actors' jargon, left O'Byrne somewhere between exhausted and exhilarated. "It feels tiring," he confessed. "We had Friday afternoon off. It was the third afternoon we've had off in 175 days." [And what did he do on his day off? "F---ing laundry, that's what I did!"] "For my character, it's the first time I've done a run-through. Now we have the full play, and we've just kinda discovering Part Three. I've never had a run-through before so right now all I can see is the places that need some more work.
"When we start doing them all together, I think it's going to have an energy and a poignancy that has been impossible to achieve when we were just putting them on individually. The rhythm has been stopped each time. We didn't know the rhythm, and now — this coming Saturday — will be the time where we're going to discover the effect."
In the first play, Herzen amounted to a two-scene cameo. Then sex entered the big picture. He was the cuckolded in Part Two and the cuckolder in Part Three, a widower who makes a mistress of the wife (Martha Plimpton) of his childhood friend, Nicholas Ogarev, the affably alcoholic, tragically epileptic poet (Hamilton). The entire affair is carried off, by all hands, with considerable Noel Cowardian sophistication and elan.
"There's an old joke where a guy comes home and finds his wife in bed with his best friend," proffered Hamilton. "He pulls out a gun and shoots the wife, and, when the police say, 'Why did you shoot your wife?,' the guy answers, ‘Well, he was my best friend.'"
The cuckolding, he contended, "is a very interesting insight into the character that I play. These characters were really trying to live by their belief and their ideals. They believed in freedom the same way that open societies and communes in the '60s did — sorta 'Hey, man, that's cool. We can all share each other.' But, of course, it's never that easy. It gets much more complicated, but I think that my character really tried to live true to that. He didn't feel that he owned his wife. He felt she was free to do what she wanted. He just wanted everyone to love each other, and he actually ends up, I think, with what becomes the healthiest relationship in the play — with Mary Sutherland (Kellie Overbey)."
Epilepsy strikes the character twice during Play Three, and Hamilton was ready for it. "Originally, I searched the Internet for videos, then I met two women from the epileptic foundation here. One of the interesting things that they taught us is that you should never put something in the person's mouth. They can hurt you. They can bite down and hurt their teeth. No one ever, actually, swallows their tongue, so you should never do that." It's a frighteningly accurate depiction of a seizure, but Hamilton's tendency is to pooh-pooh it: "Basically, it's how I dance anyway, so it wasn't that far-fetched for me."
As Natasha Tuchkov Orarev, the object of this amorous in-house tug-of-war, Martha Plimpton brings to flinty fruition a role she only introduced in Part II — then as the best friend of Herzen's wife (Jennifer Ehle) and here as the woman who would be Herzen's wife (were she not already married to his best friend). "It's odd how ahead of their times they were," Plimpton said, marveling at the envelop-pushing progressiveness of it all, "very surprising but, apparently, very historically accurate and very much a part of the philosophical period, which I didn't know. I hadn't realized it until we started researching.
"I do love this character. She's very different, obviously, from anyone I've ever played. She's very complex, and there's a lot that you don't see on stage. I love that — when there's a life to the character that's off-stage. It allows you to surprise people a little bit."
The prospect of parading the character in all her neuroses in one day — plus her Varenka Bakunin in Play One, another man-divided damsel — has Plimpton champing at the bit:
"I'm thrilled to do it all in one day. I think that's really when we're going to have a sense of what these plays are all about, actually. Up till now, we've given each one its specific time and its due. And now, once we really start performing all in a big arc in one day, I think we will be overwhelmed with the sense of exactly who these people are."
AWOL at the party was Billy Crudup, who plays the forgotten fifth musketeer, Vissarion Belinsky, the literary critic claimed by tuberculosis exactly midway through the Marathon — so, presumably, Crudup saw no reason to rise from the grave and attend.
Amy Irving has no role in Salvage either, but she showed up to celebrate anyway, perhaps coasting a bit on the pristine, sensual cameo she contributes to Part Two: Ogarev's estranged first wife, Maria (did he marry no other kind?). "I have a very good time swinging my purse," she declared simply, "and it's nice to have the contrasting roles — to go from Mom to a sexual being." (She draws matriarchal duties in the first play as Varvara Bakunin, playing mother to Ehle, Plimpton, Overbey and Hawke.) Irving doesn't subscribe to the theory that high-minded thinkers in any epoch would be above base sexual matters. "God, no. I think the deeper you think, the more sex you gotta have."
She, too, has never had an acting experience like this one. "Who has? Except for the cast in London, who's ever been in something like this? Maybe Nicholas Nickleby — no! This has been a unique experience — working on different plays at the same time. Nothing has come along like this before. It has been an incredible lesson for all of us, and I think we've all learned so much. I mean, this world of the Russian intelligentsia and the modern stories of love that come out of that world — it's just been incredible. And to have Tom Stoppard there with us every step of way, spoon feeding us. No, nothing approaches this."
Her patriarchal counterpart in the first play, Richard Easton, moves on to two other richly colored-up cameos in the other plays — an officious Russian consul general in Nice in the second play, and dying Polish royalty in the third — but, shrugged Easton, a vet of rep, that's the nature of the beast. "All the kids who haven't done rep, of course — it will be wonderful for them," he predicted. "They have no idea the buzz you get when you suddenly come back to the first play after two days of doing the other two plays."
David Christopher Wells, a swing serf-servant-revolutionary who rises in the ranks to the role of Perotkin the spy in Part Three, has a reason to enjoy the marathon days beyond just the playing of the thing: overtime. "We get a bump up in salary, but I forget how much it is," he said. "We do our first one on Saturday, and I'm excited. This opening was a really wonderful experience for us. For the first time, we had an audience that had seen all three in succession in two days. People had seen One and Two yesterday and Three today. You could tell a lot of people did that. For the marathon, traveling the whole trilogy with the same audience is going to be a great experience. I can't wait. They're hearing things they didn't know as there, hearing things in Part Three that were set up in Part One, and an audience who saw One back in November may miss the connection."
All parts are now in place, ready to start twirling in repertory. Let the games begin.