PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Coast of Utopia: Voyage — The Running of the Bolsheviks

Opening Night   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Coast of Utopia: Voyage — The Running of the Bolsheviks
It looked like the revolution had started without me when I arrived super-early Nov. 27 for the opening at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre of Voyage, the first of three three-hour installments of The Coast of Utopia, Sir Tom Stoppard's sprawling human trilogy of the thought-filled 30-year lull in Russian history that came before the Bolshevik storm.

Rabble, a good 4,000 strong, filled Lincoln Center plaza — but they were a festive band of firebrands, I quickly deduced, full of holiday spirits, spirit and song. And those who remembered to bring torches were twirling and juggling them. The occasion was the lighting of the Lincoln Center Christmas tree — and neighboring courtyard trees. Once that order of business was taken care of, the crowd peacefully dispersed, and the first-nighters filtered into the Beaumont for a heady evening of thought, words and deeds — Russian style, undeterred by pamphleteers in front of the theatre passing out negative comments in leaflet form about the play (Stoppage?).

Say this for the show's director, Jack O'Brien: He announces "Epic Tonight!" as soon as the curtain rises by marching all three dozen characters on stage en masse. (Voyage covers the early years of the 19th century Russian "intelligentsia." In a kind of Chekhovian cavalcade, child actors are added to the mix, and the cast number increases to 44 for part two, Shipwreck, which bows Dec. 21, and part three Salvage, which opens Feb. 15; all three twirl in rep).

Standbys and understudies, dressed in grimy gray, also work as a serfs. A sculptured forest of serfs — Bob Crowley and Scott Pask are credited with the marvelous sets — hovers oppressively in the background of Act One, looking ready to revolt. (It's a ingenious mix of mannequins and actors, brilliantly fooling the eye.)

At the after-party over at Tavern on the Green, brightly baubled up for the holidays, Crowley let me in on his serf secret: "They're all from Juilliard," he says drily. "They are 200 kids from Juilliard. They have to be very, very still, or they get fired. If they move a muscle, out!"

O'Brien also reminds you that you've just seen a saga, capping his show with a heart-soaring curtain call where the cast flows out in wave after happy wave. "As they said in The Heiress: 'I was taught by masters,'" he quipped, crediting the source. "Ellis Rabb staged some of the best curtain calls I ever saw. I was his assistant for nine years." Brian F. O'Byrne, who plays the radical theorist and editor Alexander Herzen, reads a lot into that very big bow: "You know what? It's a testament to the commitment that everybody has. Nobody stages a curtain call better than Jack, first of all — I mean, he deserves a Lifetime Achievement Tony just for his curtain calls — but also it's his nod to 'This is a company, and this whole thing cannot work unless a company gets together and stays together and knows it's a bigger picture.' I think that this curtain call is like 'It will revolve, it will change, the people will change in each show, and here are more actors.'"

Josh Hamilton giddily agrees with O'Byrne about the abundance of riches to be found with so many players. "It's overwhelming, actually, this cast — so many amazing people," he says. "You want to connect with everyone, but it's exhausting. You can't. I like them so much, but it's hard to have deep, meaningful conversations with 42 people a night."

Herzen and the character Hamilton plays, Nicholas Ogarev, become more important figures as the trilogy progresses, but in the beginning chapter they enter the action through the back door. "Nicholas was a poet and a socialist who came from money," explains Hamilton. "He had serfs, and he actually gave his estate back to the serfs. He really walked the walk, y'know. He practiced what he preached. I have a few witty lines in the second play when everyone else goes to Paris. Most of my stuff's in the third play."

O'Byrne looks at his role beyond the boundaries of this Voyage. "We're not just working one play, which is odd," he notes. "We start teching Wednesday for the second play so It's odd for me, certainly, to think of this one play. Most of my work is like an iceberg. It's still underneath right now. In the next two shows, it will hopefully reveal itself.

"Herzen becomes the centerpiece in Parts Two and Three because all the characters literally revolve around where he resides in Paris and in Italy and, most particularly in London. His house became a place where all the exiles — the political refugees — came and congregated and tried to spread a revolution all across Europe. He's kinda the smartest guy in the bunch as well, and he had a profound effect on Russian history."

Tracking a dozen name actors through the floral halls of Tavern of the Green felt like the running of the bulls at Pamplona — in this case, pre-Bolsheviks and so many of them, not easily contained in the traditional press room at the start of Tavern's winding corridor. In the role of the aristocratically born anarchist, Michael Bakunin, Ethan Hawke was the firebrand who burned longest and hottest in the opening Voyage, and he had no problem itemizing why he took the part: "A: I love Tom Stoppard's writing. B: I'd do anything to be in a rehearsal room with Jack O'Brien because it's a pleasure. And C: Certainly I look for challenging parts. I've never been in a Tom Stoppard play. I've never done this kind of work. I don't know that much about Russian history. It was exhilarating to work on it. And, also, I have to say the part was an easy fit. Every now and then, you stumble on a part that you're really right for. It was not a lot of work for me. I enjoyed it immensely."

Unlike some of his fellow cast members, Hawke stays with the character he was dealt for all three plays. "One of the things that make it so much fun is working on the third. Seeing where the character goes informs how you play the first. Very rarely do you play a character in the second play and you know his whole childhood and his background because you've played it. It's fascinating and rich. It's like acting in 'Anna Karenina.'"

Billy Crudup, as the literary critic Vissarion Belinsky, also commanded a sizable portion of the evening's focus and drew big laughs and applause for some key Stoppard rants. Crudup was euphoric at the party: "To get to be somebody who creates such beautiful, coherent and remarkable thought — spontaneously — is a very exciting endeavor for an actor because you get to coin the most beautiful phrases, and Tom's written them exquisitely."

Tuberculosis, a major killer in the 19th century, takes its toll among the play's characters — a young philosopher named Nicholas Stankevich, among them, but, because the time covered (mid-1830s to mid-1840s), is rewound and replayed at a different location for Act Two, he comes back with a worrisome cough. David Harbour, a Tony-nominated Nick in Broadway's last Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, says he'll be returning for other roles in the other installments; in Shipwreck, he's a revolutionary poet who has an affair with O'Byrne's wife, Jennifer Ehle, and, in Salvage, he's a nihilist doctor who becomes a character in a novel written by Ivan Turgenev (Jason Butler Harner).

Turgenev, best known in the theatre world as the playwright of Fortune's Fool (earning a Tony nomination 119 years after his death, and prompting an eligibility rule change) and A Month in the Country, is one of the major thinkers around whom the trilogy revolves. "I'm the wealthiest and the youngest in the group," proffers Harner. "Then, I get published, and I get very 'funny.' In the next play, I'm in love with an opera singer you never meet so everyone talks about whether we've having sex or not.

"The second play is so beautiful. Jennifer and Brian are incredible in it. It's smaller in scope. It's still 10 years, but it's more about relationships, friends growing old together. They've all known each other about 10 or 15 years now so it's much more Chekhovian."

Martha Plimpton breaks into an easy rhapsody about work, with nary a hint of "The Volga Boatman." Fact is, says she, "I'm having a ball." She plays Varenka Bakunin, Hawke's sister, who winds up living with him and her child in Germany after she leaves her husband. Natasha is the next character she has warming up in the bull pen, and she's no less chaotic: "She ends up marrying Nicholas Ogarev, who's played by Josh Hamilton, and then she falls in love with Brian's character, Alexander Herzen, and she's sorta living with the two of them, and then having Ogarev's children, and Ogarev goes to live with a whore in London, played by Kellie Overbey. It's all crazy. They're all crazy people, Harry." This will carry her through Shipwreck and Salvage but no safe harbor in sight.

Stunning-looking by Tavern light, Amy Irving gamely played Mother for the play. "I get to be Mother Earth in this one — and, in the next one, not so much," she says with a sexy smile. "It's nice to be able to move from mother to Jennifer Ehle's contemporary."

Her husband in the play, Alexander Bakunin, is played with his customary flair and vigor by Richard Easton, who won a Tony for the last Stoppard-O'Brien collaboration, The Invention of Love. Easton collapsed on stage Oct. 18 during a performance of Voyage, and the opening was delayed from Nov. 5 to Nov. 27 to allow the appropriate amount of time for him to recover from a procedure he received to correct a heart arrhythmia.

"I feel fine," he beams. "I'm terribly sore — and the ribs are still a bit sore. It's just cleared the top of my breathing now, but, after five weeks, finally I can get a full breath."

He begins and ends Voyage, his life and vision fading with the sunset at play's end. But he promises to be back for Shipwreck. "I have a different part, a very silly part. I have one scene as a mad Russian consul. He leaps to his feet every time the Czar is mentioned."

The star of the first Stoppard-O'Brien-Lincoln Center team-effort, Hapgood, was very much in attendance on opening night. Stockard Channing has no immediate stage plans, beyond a Town Hall appearance Dec. 1 in a benefit reading of The Laramie Project marking what would have been the 30th birthday of Matthew Shepard. She will reprise her Emmy-winning role of his mother in an all-star cast that includes Judith Light, Cyndi Lauper and Mary-Louise Parker. Her film, "3 Needles," opens the same day.

Lincoln Center Theatre execs Andre Bishop and Bernard Gersten made sure the cast usually inhabiting The Clean House got booked for Voyage, and all five showed up: Blair Brown, John Dossett with wife Michele Pawk, Jill Clayburgh with daughter Lily Rabe (enjoying, like Swoosie Kurtz, a night off from Heartbreak House), Vanessa Aspillaga with her Central Park As You Like It player David Cromwell (who shines in Voyage — but "don't blink, baby" in the other two) and Concetta Tomei. That show's stage manager, Roy Harris, was also in attendance and reports that his new cookbook, "More Recipes & Reminiscence," and Sarah Ruhl's script for The Clean House were both selling strong for the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS Gypsy of the Year fund-raising competition. "Everybody in the cast has given me an extra recipe, and we have stuffed them into the book. You should taste 'Jill Clayburgh's Flourless Chocolate Cake'! It's fabulous!"

Zoe Caldwell made her entrance in her basic dramatic black: A Callas carryover? A Medea carryover? Maybe, considering the turf, a Bernarda Alba outfit? My guess is the latter. After all, she will be making her first New York appearance in 12 years Feb. 1 at the Classic Stage Company in A Spanish Play by [the French] Yasmina Reza.

Actor-turned-director Mark Lamos was in town, between gigs and cities. "I did Alfred Uhry's play at the Guthrie, Edgardo Mine, and next week I start rehearing Somerset Maugham's The Circle at ACT in San Francisco with Kathleen Widdoes and some ACT alums. Lamos and fellow Voyage patron Uhry both live in the hope Edgardo Mine, much done regionally, will get to NYC.

Meanwhile, Hal Prince is putting Uhry back on Broadway in LoveMusik (spring 2007 at the Biltmore), with Michael Cerveris and Donna Murphy as Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya. "The thing that I'm worried about is it's sort of an artichoke," frets Uhry. "Anyone much older than we are has no idea who those people are." Weill died at age 50 in 1950, too soon, too soon.

Playwrights present and accounted included ex-Czech prexy Vaclav Havel (a pal of Sir Tom's), Paul Rudnick (fresh from his Regrets Only bouquets), William Finn, John Weidman, A.R. Gurney (due next with Crazy Mary starring Sigourney Weaver) and David Ives.

Others spotted: Helen Stenborg, producer Daryl Roth, Michael Cumpsty, director Dan Sullivan, Kate Burton, Sam Rockwell, Mamie Gummer and Martha Stewart.

Lyricist Susan Birkenhead, crowing that she has finished The Flamingo Kid, began the day in Milano — a groggy way to start a Stoppard play, what, what? She and her husband, Gere Couture, spent the Thanksgiving holidays in Venice "since it's sorta 'our city.'"

Other twosomes in attendance: Katie Finneran with her regular beau, actor Will Kenney (if they wed, she'll be Katie Kenney — think about it, hon), Tony winner and now Tony nominator Joanna Gleason with actor-hubby Chris Sarandon, Barbara Cook with Harvey Evans and Heather Goldenhersh (who played Sister James in Doubt and kinda became a habit with O'Byrne).

At the party, director O'Brien somewhat resembled a veteran of foreign wars between engagements, momentarily happy to make it ashore. "It was a great honor to do this piece. I love Tom. I love working with him. I love his kindness. It's so funny for a guy from Michigan to speak this way, but we've become very good friends. We love working together. We love being together."

The beat will go on, at least a couple of other revolutions, and Sir Tom will be sticking around for them. "Oh, yeah," insists O'Brien. "I can't let him go now. We're all ready to tech the second one. And then the third one starts after that. I'm in harness until mid-February."

Billy Crudup, director Jack O'Brien and Josh Hamilton.
Billy Crudup, director Jack O'Brien and Josh Hamilton. Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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