PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Coast of Utopia — Shipwreck: Off to a Flying Stoppard

News   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Coast of Utopia — Shipwreck: Off to a Flying Stoppard
The triumph of Tom Stoppard's sprawling cerebral trilogy, The Coast of Utopia, is that it takes the revolutionary free-thinkers of 19th century Russian life off their lofty perches of importance and brings them down to earth, makes them accessible, human-size — ready for their Chekhovian close-ups.

So it was perhaps a little jest of God that when the curtain rose Dec. 21 at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont on the second installment, Shipwreck, that Alexander Herzen, the radical theorist and editor, stubbornly refused to budge.

Each of the three plays, which covers in three hours a crucial decade that contributed to the Bolshevik Revolution, starts with Herzen sitting midstage in midair in a chair slowly revolving, lost in torturous thought, slapping in his hand the glove of his drowned son, while great gray waves of change churn turbulently under, above and around him. On this particular evening — for the first and only time in any of the Utopia productions here, in London or in Russia — there was a hydraulic lift glitch, and Herzen remained resolutely in place, spinning in thought, slapping in the wind, while vast waves of black silk receded over the heads of extras carrying trees and into the wings.

The audience was about to applaud this remarkable-but-what-does-it-all-mean? effect when the curtain came down, and an announcement was made that the production would start over shortly because of a technical malfunction. "Shortly" turned into close to 15 minutes, but, when the audience saw Herzen disappear through a hole in the floor while a tsunami of change and revolutionary thought swept across the stage, they applauded heartily. There were far harder stunts ahead — including a fizzle of a French revolution — executed without a hitch and with a grand operatic flair by Jack O'Brien.

Director O'Brien, a fussy perfectionist, was mercifully spared this spectacle. "I was in the office working on the third part so I didn't see any of it," he was oh-so-happy-to-report at the after-party held across the courtyard in the Grand Promenade second floor of Avery Fisher Hall. "Thank God, I didn't see that! I would have gone into cardiac arrest.

"But you can't get too worried about it if you didn't see it. That's why I don't sit at the theatre on opening nights. The nights the critics are there, and the opening nights — I just can't do it because I see it through other people's eyes, and I just don't want to do that. "When they stopped, my assistants came into the room where I was working, and Stoppard came in. And they said, 'Don't worry, they're starting again.' And I said, 'What!' And Tom said, 'Can I stay in here with you?'" Eventually, after the show got back on track and started making a lively run of it, the author returned to the audience.

"The theatre people loved it," the director finally deduced from his impromptu post-show poll. "I don't know what anybody else thought of it, but all the theatre crowd loved it."

Scott Pask, who's half-responsible for the magnificent look of the show, was the senior set designer on duty (his other half, Bob Crowley, was presumably at the drawing boards sketching up Part Three), and Pask admitted that it's a pretty queasy thing to go through.

"It's so out of your hands," he sighed. "That opening moment is so spectacular you gotta get it right. It was disappointing, but then it happened, and we got on with it, and we were able to do it perfectly as a vision, and I was happy. That's the beauty of live theatre!"

Pask and Crowley's major achievement of the evening was the creation of Paris via the Place de la Concorde (which, on stage, runs from six inches to 12 feet and is flanked by the horses of Marly that shatter in the heat of insurrection, as per O'Brien's instructions).

"Of course, it's Jack," admitted Pask. "So much of it's Jack. We're sitting there, like, 'How can we do the revolution and create Paris in an elegant way and then destroy it?' So I decided I wanted to make it look like white porcelain and then it breaks apart and strew it with red silk. I thought that was the way to do it: make something incredibly beautiful, then have it fall apart. The pieces actually match the furniture so it's this rubble of totally white furniture from the apartment and a sculpture that was bombed into the ground."

Brian F. O'Byrne, the actor playing Herzen who was left high and dry and in spin cycle for a short eternity at the top of the play, said his favorite moment of the evening was when his malfunctioning pedestal "finally sank into the ground. I won't give any trade secrets, but it was inelegant how I got off that thing behind the curtain." Insult to injury.

Shipwreck is the play that brings Herzen forth as the focal character of the trilogy. In part one — after his introductory opening whirl before the play begins — he meanders into the play midway through, exhibits some charismatic tendencies and holds his own with twentysomethings talking rebellion. He's the play's rallying-point, with homes in Russia, France and England where leading intellectual malcontents of the day congregate and roil.

He has for houseguests four name-brand firebrands whom Stoppard found in Isaiah Berlin's "Russian Thinkers." (Collectively, the five inspired the invention of the word "intelligentsia" for "the intellectual opposition considered as a social force"): Ethan Hawke plays Michael Bakunin, an aristocratic anarchist; Billy Crudup is Vissarion Belinsky, a literary critic; Josh Hamilton is Nicholas Ogarev, a womanizing poet, and Jason Butler Harner completes the quintet as Ivan Turgenev, a novelist-playwright.

O'Byrne is one who see the glass as two-thirds full. "It doesn't feel like anything right now," he admitted, "and probably won't until we do the third one." But his admiration for the man he is playing continues to grow, he said. Herzen and his marriage to Natalie (Jennifer Ehle) received some devastating, finally fatal body-blows during this Paris stop, and, although he loses profoundly, Stoppard gives him speeches of great strength and coping ability. "You know what?" he said. "They're even better ones in the third play when he's washed up on the shore with all the other exiles from Europe in London."

Lincoln Center's invited audience was low-key, back-burner stuff — mostly artists heeding the LCT role call —Parade's Alfred Uhry, Contact's Susan Stroman and John Weidman. O'Byrne had three of his former leading ladies at his table — Swoosie Kurtz from Frozen and both Cherry Jones and Heather Goldenhersh from Doubt.

"I'm here for Brian and O'Brien and Lincoln Center and half of the world," qualified The Swoose, who just wrapped Roundabout's Heartbreak House on Sunday. "I mean, thank God we have places like Roundabout that does Heartbreak House and Lincoln Center that does an epic like this. Where else could we see things like this? In England they do this as a matter of course, but here the first thing that producers ask you is, 'Is it one set and two characters?' One character would be preferable. Thank God for Lincoln Center!"

Julianna Margulies, of "E.R.," who did time at Lincoln Center, too (Ten Unknowns) and Broadway last spring (Festen), was Ehle's cheerleader for the evening. "Yes, I am also biased, but I think it's a spectacular theatrical experience." She hopes to be back on the boards herself soon. "I'm looking for something, but I always need a break in between."

Ehle, who copped her Tony as another of Stoppard's chaotically married women in the revival of The Real Thing six years ago, would be more than at home in the role without the little summer brush-up she did as Lady Macbeth opposite Liev Schreiber in the park.

"I have never been as happy on stage saying a playwright's words as when I am playing a Stoppard woman," she declared. "It's true. I just adore attempting to embody them."

Accent on "body." She does a nude scene here, and O'Brien has directed it with great delicacy and discretion. (Actually, there are so many other things going on in the scene that you bearly/barely notice.) "I've only done one nude scene when I was 21," she recalled, "and I haven't done any since. But this particular one wasn't an issue." Amy Irving, who played the ramrod-tough matriarch in the first installment and will be sitting out the third installment, has a single scene with Ehle in Shipwreck that runs maybe eight to ten minutes and is one of the evening's dramatic highlights. She plays Hamilton's estranged wife, and Ehle has been dispatched to return her to the fold.

"I've never timed that scene, but it's all I need," admitted Irving. "That's why I signed on, to tell you the truth. I enjoy it immensely. It's a scene in a play where there aren't a lot of opportunities for two women to have it out. I love working with Jennifer. It's been heaven."

Another who won't be around for the third opus is Crudup, whom you may recall was coughing kinda tubercularly in the first play. In the second, he doesn't quite make it to intermission — but he is allowed an eloquent send-off by Stoppard and O'Brien.

What does he do after intermission? "I think of the scenes I messed up in the first act," he joshed. "Maybe I should take up knitting." He doesn't know what he'll be doing when his confreres charge into Salvage (Installment Three), but, he hastily added, "These plays are an exciting event, and I'm just so happy and delighted that I get to be in the midst of it."

David Pittu, who does a little French bit here and a little Italian bit there, will be one of the first Russkies to defect — to be German: Bertolt Brecht, no less, in Uhry's LoveMusik, which bows May 3 at the Biltmore, "but," he said, "I'm going to be in this show for what I was signed on for — till the extension. They always knew about my other thing."

Pittu will be playing to Michael Cerveris' Kurt Weill and Donna Murphy's Lotte Lenya. "I think they've done some work on it since the last time we've read it, but it's like a kind of collage of their lives, with his music woven through it. I think it's going to be like Hal Prince going back to his essential roots of that influence — that Brechtian style. He loves that stark thing. And I think Donna Murphy's a perfect choice for Lotte Lenya and Michael's wonderful, too. I'm going to get more into Brecht when I finish this third play. We'll start in about a week and a half. We have a shorter rehearsal time for the last one so we have to get it up pretty quickly. We'll be in tech the third week in January."

Harner's role is growing with the plays. In Shipwreck, you see Turgenev and the romantic conflicts around him, writing his best-known work, "A Month in the Country." Coming next: "I have three scenes, and it's right before I write 'Fathers and Sons,' and he meets his lead character for 'Fathers and Sons,' and then there is some more stuff with Herzen.

"I'm having the most amazing time," beams the actor. "It's the kind of acting job you always wanted and then can't believe they don't quite exist. It's exhausting. This play we rehearsed 45 hours, like, before we ran tech. When a lot of the press came on Friday, Tom Stoppard had just come back, and we went back in, and we were sorta peeling the onion even more — but you're doing it in front of an audience, which is exciting, but it's a little scary — especially since the plays are so dense anyway. You think, 'I hope we're getting it.'

"Jack O'Brien is just amazing. I don't know how he has so much energy. Just the amount of communication to make everything up is amazing. He tells a story like no else can. I'm having the best time. We're all looking forward to getting the third one up so we can have a party again because we want to see each other again out of rehearsal and performance mode. Backstage life is a joy. There are nightly dances under the surf — under the black silk. It reminds me of dance-offs. We want to make sure we give good waves."

Billy Crudup, Jenifer Ehle, and Amy Irving at the opening night party for <i>Shipwreck</i>, Part Two of <i>The Coast of Utopia</i>
Billy Crudup, Jenifer Ehle, and Amy Irving at the opening night party for Shipwreck, Part Two of The Coast of Utopia Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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