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Young actors storm ‘The Coast of Utopia’

Times Staff Writer

CASTING agents looking for handsome, brooding, intellectual Romeos might be scratching their heads at the moment. Where have all the stage actors who can play heady romantics under 40 suddenly run off to?

A trip to Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater in New York solves the mystery. Jack O’Brien’s production of “The Coast of Utopia,” Tom Stoppard’s three-play epic on the 19th century Russian writers and thinkers who prepared the way for the Russian Revolution, has virtually cornered the market on this acting demographic.

The cast, including Ethan Hawke, Billy Crudup, Brian F. O’Byrne, Jason Butler Harner, Josh Hamilton and David Harbour, is a reminder of the richness of this generation of actors, whose commitment to unabashedly literate theater parallels their characters’ more fanatical devotion to finding progressive solutions to the systemic social problems of their homeland.

A nearly eight-hour drama about the Russian intelligentsia that received mixed reviews when it premiered in London in 2002, “The Coast of Utopia” isn’t for the theatrical faint of heart. Stamina is a prerequisite for the company and audience alike. A little background reading -- especially Isaiah Berlin’s pellucid essays collected in “Russian Thinkers” and E.H. Carr’s “Romantic Exiles” -- wouldn’t be a bad idea, especially for those curious about the sources of Stoppard’s seemingly microchip-enhanced imagination.

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The widespread critical acclaim for O’Brien’s staging of “Voyage,” the first part of the trilogy, has made Lincoln Center’s risky gamble an apparent winner. “Shipwreck,” the second part, just opened this week, and “Salvage,” the final installment, opens in mid-February. Marathon lovers will have opportunities to see all three on the same day later in the run, which has been extended until May 13, but why not parcel them and make time for Alexander Herzen’s memoir “My Past and Thoughts,” one of the prose masterpieces of 19th Russian literature, comparable in some estimations to the great novels of Tolstoy and Turgenev?

Of course, you can spare yourself a trip to the library and simply marvel at the acting prowess on display. Though the enormous cast of 44 boasts fine actresses -- Amy Irving, Jennifer Ehle, Martha Plimpton -- it’s the young men who motor this unusually discursive drama. Distinguished veteran Richard Easton has returned after being hospitalized for cardiac trouble during early previews and was in fine form during a press performance last month, but not even he could steal the lads’ thunder.

“The Coast of Utopia” focuses on Russian idealists who came of age in the 1830s and ‘40s -- radical journalists, philosophers, editors and authors whom Berlin described as a “dedicated order, almost a secular priesthood, devoted to the spreading of a specific attitude to life, something like a gospel.” Temperamentally, there were as many differences among them as similarities. But they were united by a political romanticism that urged them to make conscious the destiny, sometimes referred to as the “march of history,” of their beloved, eternally hobbled Russia.

"[C]onscious of being alone in the world, with a hostile and arbitrary government on the one hand, and a completely uncomprehending mass of oppressed and inarticulate peasants on the other,” Berlin writes, they fashioned themselves “as a kind of self-conscious army, carrying a banner for all to see -- of reason and science, of liberty, of a better life.”

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“Voyage” revolves around Michael Bakunin, an aristocratic student of philosophy who became a leader of the anarchist movement, and Vissarion Belinsky, the impassioned, socially inept and sputteringly brilliant critic who sought in literature a sociopolitical response to humanity’s suffering.

As played by Hawke, Bakunin’s a whirling dervish of narcissistic idealism, breathless to apply abstruse Hegelian formulas to everyday life. The performance lives up to the depiction of him in Herzen’s autobiography in every respect, save the mammoth physical stature: “His activity, his leisure, his appetite, like all his other characteristics -- even his gigantic size and continual sweat -- were of superhuman proportions.”

Hawke’s mode of attack amounts to a charmingly raving assault. Why talk when you can hector? Why walk when you can run or, better yet, leap? Cadging cigarettes and money for booze, he’s a country estate prince ablaze with the latest developments of Western European enlightenment as he contemplates a national chaos he not only acutely feels but also embodies.

He is matched, mania for mania, by Crudup’s Belinsky, a character who won’t let his humble origins, tubercular heath or lack of social graces get in the way of his mission -- once he settles on what that should be.

Crudup, who has become, along with peers Liev Schreiber and Robert Sean Leonard, one of this era’s most hypnotic stage presences, has a philosophical aria in “Voyage” that showcases his fiendish virtuosity. Driven into paroxysms of disgust with the paltriness of Russian literature outside of Pushkin and Gogol, Belinsky launches into a tirade that swells to ludicrous proportions as he becomes more self-conscious about carrying on in public. This tour de force, suffused with as much conviction as humiliation, amounts to a brilliant character study of the impoverished scholar who eventually became the “conscience” of the Russian intelligentsia.

“Voyage” has a Chekhovian rhythm of entrances and exits, underscored with endless chitchat. History steamrolls as characters hold forth on subjects large and small.

“Political arrangements are merely changing forms in the world of appearances,” young philosopher Nicholas Stankevich (Harbour) notes after commenting on the strangeness of the sunny yet cold weather.

Turgenev, portrayed by Harner, casually remarks as he strolls toward a fishpond, “Oh yes, we’re all Hegelians now. ‘What’s rational is real, and what’s real is rational.’ ” Harner, an actor born to play artists, cuts as feverish a figure portraying the future author of “Fathers and Sons” as he did this year when he played the perpetual student Trofimov in the Mark Taper Forum’s “The Cherry Orchard.”

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History for art’s sake

SPEAKING of cast members with a literary air, Hamilton never fails to give even his most aggressively masculine characters a poet’s intensity. This quality comes in handy for Nicholas Ogarev, the wealthy radical who will become more prominent in the second and third parts of “The Coast of Utopia,” when his great friend Herzen, incarnated by the reliably sensational O’Byrne, a Tony winner for “Frozen” and originator of the role of the questionable priest in John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt,” takes center stage.

So why would these talented actors devote so much time to portraying historical figures that most Americans have never heard of, in a play that wasn’t universally heralded in London? Surely an agent or manager must have raised an eyebrow at the lengthy commitment. More than half a year of theater? What about pilot season?

What’s more, isn’t the subject matter a little out of fashion in this brazenly anti-intellectual age of ours? Herzen and Turgenev may be revered by those in the know, but they aren’t exactly publicity magnets.

For all of these reasons precisely. The uncommon depth of these performers comes from the recognition that their profession isn’t merely a craft or, more cynically, a business but an art. And that theater can still be a forum for the collision of embodied perspectives, even if intellectual substance is notoriously scant on most stages these days.

Stoppard’s play enacts a moment in history when thinkers and writers set out to redirect the future. Ideologies were conceived and pressed immediately into service, sometimes at the expense of the individual lives they were theoretically meant to serve. “The Coast of Utopia” dramatizes both the ebb and flow of conditional life and the hunger for unconditional solutions to its woes.

At bottom lies a theme that has been surfacing in Stoppard’s plays of late, that life is bigger than any idea of it, no matter how complexly it may be cogitated. Structuring the trilogy is Herzen’s lyrical phrasing of this insight: “Art, and the summer lightning of individual happiness: these are the only real goods we have.”

The sentiment, so radically opposed to the unyielding mentalities of the generations of revolutionists who followed him, is nonetheless what has allowed his work to endure in the hearts not just of Russians but of a brainy playwright and a fearless company of actors.

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charles.mcnulty@latimes.com


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