According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.

Friday, December 22, 2006

The Coast of Utopia: Shipwreck

Visually thrilling but not as intellectually stirring as Voyage, Shipwreck is a great compliment to the Coast of Utopia trilogy, but a little dry and melodramatic on its own. Worth seeing for the strong ensemble cast, even if the leads are playing too safe to tap into any real emotions.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Tom Stoppard’s Voyage was a very heavy play: as the first part of an epic trilogy about Russian intellectuals and their revolutions (The Coast of Utopia), it bore the responsibility for establishing characters like the exuberantly radical Michael Bakunin (Ethan Hawke), the passionate literary critic Vissarion Belinksy (Billy Crudup), and the formidable thinker Alexander Herzen (BrĂ­an F. O’Byrne). By contrast, Shipwreck, the second part of the trilogy, is light and often comically witty—it sails on the good humor and fortune amassed by the initial installment and suffers little tragedy (or emotion) until deep in the second act. That’s a little ironic, considering that the first act comprises the French revolution, but the big events always seem to happen from afar (in fact, they’re often staged far in the hollow recesses of the gigantic Vivian Beaumont theater). Stoppard is more interested with the reactions of individual cogs than with the entire mechanism, which explains why the second act of Shipwreck focuses on the fomenting of Herzen’s philosophies on life after the tragic (and offstage) death of his deaf son.

Though Stoppard is technically correct when he claims that each part of The Coast of Utopia stands alone, Shipwreck doesn’t do much by itself: it starts off as a dry exchange of idealisms in Paris and then travels to Nice for a shallow tale of adulterous passion. The former is a shadow of Voyage, the latter is a spectral stab at Chekhov—both seem perfunctory. Herzen simply isn’t as interesting as Bakunin—even when he catches his wife, Natalie (Jennifer Ehle) having an affair with the poet George Herwegh (David Harbour) his stoicism drains the danger from the scene. Such internal mystery is fine for characters who are still on the periphery, like Ivan Turgenev (an excellent Josh Hamilton) and Nicholas Ogarev (Jason Butler Harner), and we don’t have time to delve into the souls of thirty characters, but there ought to be more for the protagonist. Stoppard defines Herzen by history rather than action; consequently, O’Byrne speaks to make the words big instead of allowing the words—those dim, desperately grasped-upon ideas—to make him big. A character defined by words alone is more golem than human.

However, within the context of the entire cycle, Shipwreck is a far more enjoyable evening. It’s not often that we get to see characters grow over several decades or to see talented actors like Richard Easton and Martha Plimpton making the most of small roles. The extra layers from play to play add dimensions to otherwise static scenes, and even at its most boring, director Jack O’Brien has made The Coast of Utopia beautiful to look at. Shipwreck winds up, fittingly, like Herzen: focused more on the technical marvels of O’Brien and company than the emotional range of O’Byrne and company. (Not to diminish the cast in whole: Bianca Amato and Amy Irving, among others, are stunning.)

Because there is less meat to Shipwreck, O’Brien has flavored his theatrical stew with vibrant staging and a transformative set. The deep recesses of the Vivian Beaumont Theater are used in full to play with perspective to show us the Place de la Concorde in Paris being sacked by revolutionaries. Giant chandeliers and oppressive skylights capture the attention and focus the mood better than complex, two-ton sets. Even the simplicity of a watercolor scrim is enough to make us feel at home in Italy. And with just the faintest touch of lighting, O’Brien can plunge us into prison or carry us across the ocean. During segues, characters sing, lending an operatic quality to an already epic cycle. It’s a pity the heart of the play doesn’t match the quality of the staging.

There are, however, high hopes for Salvage. Voyage set up believable characters and breathed the great revolutionary ideas into them. Shipwreck spends its two-and-a-half hours draining these characters of their hot air. Revolution is in the air, and even if it doesn’t reach us in Salvage, we’ll at least have one final opportunity to enjoy O’Brien’s marvelous direction.

Vivian Beaumont Theater (150 West 65th Street)
Tickets (212-239-6200): $65.00-100.00

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