The Coast of Utopia: Part Three -- Salvage

It would be folly to argue that Salvage, the final installment of Tom Stoppard's trilogy The Coast of Utopia, is "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." Certainly there are many moving moments, including the gorgeously staged (by director Jack O'Brien) final tableau. And thematically speaking, The Coast of Utopia is a triumph of organic thinking: If Voyage, the first play, aimed to celebrate the contagious optimism of a pack of mid-19th-century revolutionary Russian writers and thinkers, and if the second play, Shipwreck, aimed to derive drama from the coterie's collective early successes, what could the third play aim for if not to examine how the passage of time has affected — rendering impotent — their once-bold revolution?

But just as Stoppard did in the earlier plays, he intersperses the personal histories of the members of the group — writer-theorist Alexander Herzen (Brían F. O'Byrne), poet Nicholas Ogarev (Josh Hamilton), writer Ivan Turgenev (Jason Butler Harner), and aristocrat-turned-revolutionary Michael Bakunin (Ethan Hawke) — to mixed effect. It is understandable for Stoppard to want to place human faces and emotions beside the philosophical debates and discussion, but as each play has unfolded, the device has become increasingly unwieldy. Should we care that Malwida von Meysenbug (Jennifer Ehle), a German governess, is having trouble raising Herzen's unruly brood? Or that Herzen creates a new journal that ultimately helps to push Czar Alexander II to free the serfs?

Indeed, the epic crowd scene following the news of the serfs' freeing is not the one that stirs the heart most — it's Salvage's tinier, quieter moments. Consider the penultimate scene, when Herzen sits in a Geneva café with Sleptsov (Scott Parkinson), a member of a new generation of writers and thinkers who disdain what Herzen and his crew were advocating. "We don't care about your tedious, hackneyed, sentimental addiction to reminiscence and to ideas which are extinct," snarls Sleptsov. "Get out of the way, you're behind the times. Forget that you're a great man. What you are is a dead man." Here, with just two actors, Stoppard encapsulates the drama of The Coast of Utopia spectacularly.

As always, much credit is due the cast — maybe even most of all in Salvage, in which the narrative is less linear and the leaps through time most disorienting. O'Byrne accomplishes the trick of aging without overacting; his Herzen weathers the Sleptsov scene with the stolidity of a war vet who senses that another wave of young soldiers will soon displace him on the battlefield. Much as Hamilton's and Harner's performances in the first two plays embodied the joy of being antiestablishment, there's something calmer about them in Salvage, as their characters, like O'Byrne's, note the steady slippage of time. Hawke's performance, notably weak in Voyage and Shipwreck, surprises most: Bakunin has done hard time in Siberia but has lost none of his fire, a trait Hawke makes believable.

Or maybe it's the women of Utopia who slog the hardest. Just watch Martha Plimpton as Natasha, Ogarev's enchanting second wife. It is she who delivers Salvage's final line — "There's going to be a storm" — and she who shows us, after such an epic adventure, the essential truth behind Russia's growing clouds.

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