He's back at last, that daredevil Brit--the guy who's so clever with quips but deep down is dead serious, who's as deft as an acrobat but tough enough to go the distance. No, no--not the new James Bond. We mean Stoppard. Tom Stoppard. Is there any job too daunting for this knighted playwright to tackle? He's taken up such topics as quantum physics ("Hapgood") and a repressed dead poet ("The Invention of Love") and turned them into brilliant entertainment. Now he's collared a band of 19th-century radical Russian intellectuals--a subject so vast he wound up writing not one but three plays.
The first part of "The Coast of Utopia," his ambitious trilogy, opens this week in a handsome new production (it first played in London in 2002) at New York's Lincoln Center, with a total cast of 44 actors in 82 roles. The second and third installments arrive this winter and will rotate in repertory. Already, the super-Stoppard freaks have rushed the box office and snapped up all the tickets to the few scheduled "marathons," when all three plays will be performed in one day.
Spanning nearly 40 years, "The Coast of Utopia" follows a group of revolutionary idealists who are trying to reimagine Mother Russia without an absolutist tsar and the enslavement of millions of serfs. If you think that sounds a bit musty, think again. Stoppard launches "Voyage," the first play in the "Utopia" cycle, as a domestic comedy, with a family dinner on a country estate. The chattering of four sisters (more than a whiff of Chekhov here) is interrupted by the homecoming of their adored brother: Michael Bakunin. He'll grow up to become the notorious anarchist, but at the moment he's a spoiled, callow young man (deliciously played by Ethan Hawke) who fights with his father, is always short of cash and changes his philosophy as easily as his shirt. "The life of the body is a mere illusion," he tells one sister, while stuffing a chunk of bread in his mouth. "God, I'm starving!"
Stoppard, a master at using wit and humanity to lighten up Big Ideas, denies his play is a polemic. "It's about a family, and brothers and sisters and struggles between lovers, and parents and children." Lofty ideals may drive his characters but they can't escape the emotional turbulence of their own lives, and Stoppard focuses on this human messiness. Exhibit A is the writer and early socialist Alexander Herzen (played by Brían F. O'Byrne), who appears in "Voyage" and anchors the next two plays, set mostly in Europe where the gentlemen revolutionaries go into exile. "Herzen was an early feminist," says the playwright. "He didn't think men had the right of possession over their wives. But it never occurred to him that his wife might fall for somebody else. For a little while, it destroyed him."
At the end of "Voyage," Bakunin has begun his exile, and his father (the great Richard Easton), old and blind, sits on his grand estate in Russia, facing a sunset he cannot see. He believes his children grew up in "paradise." (Of course the "500 souls," as he calls his silent serfs, made that paradise possible.) And we know it's soon to be lost. Stoppard wants us to think about tolerance, freedom and how we live our lives--but also about how idealism can be subverted. Long after Herzen's death, after his writing about autonomy and human dignity, Lenin canonized him as a hero. "He would have been horrified," says Stoppard. From the fusty but fascinating figures Stoppard has brought to life in this complex, funny and heartbreaking play comes a lesson--something along the lines of "Be careful what you wish for." For all the pure intentions behind their visions of a new world order, they helped pave the way for a nightmare they couldn't have imagined.