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Young actors storm `The Coast of Utopia'

An epic about Russian writers who hear the call of history has stars answering art's appeal.

December 24, 2006|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

New York — 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.

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."

"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.

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