The Coast of Utopia: Part One--Voyage

If a local Mensa chapter planned a cultural outing, Voyage, part one of Tom Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia trilogy, might be suitable. For starters, there's Stoppard's aptitude for channeling meditations and reflections on intellectual thought and literary history via free-flowing, often profoundly witty dialogue. With director Jack O'Brien parading his powerhouse cast with effortless ease across a metaphorical set (by Bob Crowley and Scott Pask), audiences conversant with the birth pangs of modern Russian literature and identity in the 1830s and 1840s will enjoy diving into this mind-challenging wonderland where politics, sociology, and love merge into drama.

Yet it's drama cool to the touch: Voyage lacks the heart, for example, of Arcadia, a more successful Stoppard effort at mining 19th-century philosophy for modernist theatrics. With nine scenes in Act 1 and 14 in Act 2, there's certainly majesty and grandeur to Stoppard's narrative mingling of the lives of Michael Bakunin (Ethan Hawke), an aristocrat-turned-anarchist; Vissarion Belinsky (Billy Crudup), a literary critic assailing how Russia is "stuck between the 18th and 19th century" Nicholas Stankevich (David Harbour), a callow Romantic philosopher; Alexander Herzen (Brían F. O'Byrne), a radical theorist; and Ivan Turgenev (Jason Butler Harner), the writer. However, to find emotional engagement, you must locate the romance.

Yes, it's there. There's the scene featuring Natalie Beyer (Mia Barron), a daughter of gentry, rebuffed by Bakunin and Stankevich. There are scenes of Belinsky with his mistress, Katya (Jennifer Lyon), a bawd of the proletariat. There's the love among Michael Bakunin's four sisters—Liubov (Jennifer Ehle), Varenka (Martha Plimpton), Tatiana (Kellie Overbey), and Alexandra (Annie Purcell)—and their love for their brother, Varenka's marriage to a count she barely loves, Liubov's adoration of Stankevich, and the Old World marriage of the Bakunin siblings' parents, Alexander and Varvara Bakunin (Richard Easton and Amy Irving).

Too often, though, pure distinction between characters is lacking, and some performances grate on the nerves. Michael's sisters, for one, seem interchangeable; only slump-shouldered Plimpton impresses. As Michael, who siphons money from whomever he can whenever he can, Hawke gets laughs, but his whiny voice seems more California than Caucasus. Easton, his health scare over, is alternately thunderous and pitiful; Irving is unremarkable. In parts two and three of Utopia, we'll see more of O'Byrne, and we'll eagerly await more of Crudup, who delivers two great monologues in Voyage that sum up the nervous, unrefined intensity of Belinsky, an ill-fated emblem of Russian pride.

For all the discourse about Alexander Pushkin, George Sand, the Peace of Utrecht, and the Decembrists—or of Fichte, Hegel, Schelling, and German Idealist philosophy—O'Brien's staging is mercifully swift and precise; the penultimate scene of Act 2, set on a revolving stage, is more graceful than a thousand Trevor Nunn–directed musicals. Jagged-edge scrims resembling book leaves are genius; immovable upstage statues representing the masses—looming over the play like the revolution to come—are brilliantly creepy.

One element will likely be ignored by critics. A century ago, many complained that the American theatre lacked a strong national identity; calls were put out for the creation of a dramatic literature incontrovertibly American in tone, scope, and style. In a way, The Coast of Utopia is Russia's version of that tale, albeit longer ago and more intellectually rigorous. After all, we got Broadway and the nonprofit world; they got Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Lenin, Stalin, and Putin. A very different voyage, indeed.

Presented by Lincoln Center Theater in association with Bob Boyett at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, 150 W. 65th St., NYC. Nov. 27May 12. Schedule varies. (212) 239-6200 or (800) 432-7250 or Casting by Daniel Swee.