March 27, 2007

A Safe Haven in "The Coast of Utopia"

It’s hard to figure out what the New York Times has against Tom Stoppard. Or against Russian intellectuals. Or against the New York theater-going public for that matter. Back in November, while the first part of Lincoln Center Theater’s production of Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia was still in previews, the Times’ Williams Grimes wrote an article warning theatergoers that they’d need to do some advanced reading if they wanted to understand Stoppard’s three linked plays about the circle of 19th century Russian intellectuals who laid the ground work for the next century’s Russian Revolution. The 11-book reading list Grimes assembled ranged from Isaiah Berlin’s Russian Thinkers to Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons. My husband K is no slouch in the serious reading department and has worked his way through Plato and Aristotle, most of the Russian novelists and a big chunk of the American literary canon, but after reading Grimes’ piece, he decided that he didn’t have enough time to do the homework for The Coast of Utopia and opted not to go.

Then in February, after having seen the second installment of the cycle, the paper’s second string theater critic, Charles Isherwood, weighed in to say that he found the plays “a bore.” Well, I, too, have now seen both the first and second parts of The Coast of Utopia and I don’t know what the Times is talking about. The production, dazzlingly directed by Jack O’Brien, is one of the most thrillingly theatrical experiences I’ve seen, not only in this season but in this decade. The always brilliant set designer Bob Crowley has, with Scott Pask, created gasp-inspiring images that will linger in my mind’s eye for years to come. The 40+ member cast includes a Who’s Who of the leading young theater actors of our time including Billy Crudup, Jennifer Ehle, Ethan Hawke, Martha Plimpton and Brian F. O’Byrne. Yes, it takes some time to figure out all the characters and their relationships to one another but because the narrative plays out over three parts, there is time to figure that out. And yes, there are major philosophical issues to ponder like the role of literature in cultural identity and the role of rich men in proletarian revolutions, but there are also laugh out-loud jokes and who's-bedding-whom storylines that are as accessible as those on Desperate Housewives.

I haven’t been able to persuade K to change his mind about seeing the shows but hundreds of other people who love theater have ignored the Times and are flocking to the Vivian Beaumont and clamoring for tickets to the all-day Saturday marathons when all three installments play in sequence from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Celebrities are turning out too. Lauren Bacall and historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and his wife, sat across from me at Part 1, The Coast of Utopia: Voyage, just a few weeks before Schlesinger’s death on Feb. 28. Bill Clinton attended, and got a standing ovation, the night my friend Bill saw Part 2, The Coast of Utopia: Shipwreck. The biggest cheers, though, go to a theatrical experience that engages the eye, the mind and the imagination.

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