The result of that "massive research" is a massive trilogy: The Coast of Utopia, three three-hour plays (Voyage, Shipwreck and Salvage), requiring 44 actors (and what a brilliant cast has been assembled!) in more than 70 roles; the trilogy opened in London in 2002. Voyage's American premiere at Lincoln Center is not to be missed. (Shipwreck will begin performances Dec. 6, and Salvage will begin performances Jan. 30.)
Voyage is a play about ideas and history and families and friendships. It is the story of a group of intensely philosophical young men who are intoxicated by German and French idealism. While they fume about the backwardness of Russia ("How did we become the Caliban of Europe?") and rage, nervously, about the czar's ruthless repression of dissidence, young women fall in love with them. They talk about literature and about publishing their subversive magazines, while debts, politics and fatal diseases overtake them.
Act 1 takes place at the Bakunin estate, where we meet rambunctious, arrogant Michael, the darling of his four sisters and their parents. This is a sunny paradise of privilege where everyone learns to speak five languages, and where no one ever wonders where the food or the clean clothes come from. (Think about War and Peace's Rostovs or the Gaev-Ranevsky family in The Cherry Orchard.)
We get to know the Bakunins and the young men who come to visit them over eight years, as seasons and romances and philosophies change. Keeping everybody straight takes a while, especially since the way family resemblance has been created among the women - hair color, clothing - makes them hard to distinguish at first.
Act 2 takes place in Moscow and St. Petersburg during the same years - where all these characters were between visits to the country. The palette changes from warm, golden tones to harsher, chillier grays. The cities are filled with messy cafes and glittering soirees and meager bedrooms; rumors swirl of exile and imprisonment and death.
Theatrically, Voyage is gorgeous. Before it begins, we are at sea in dark, swirling waves under a dark, foggy sky, an effect so compelling that the audience is rapt before a word is spoken. The lighting will transform the gleaming black stage from water to ice to street to ballroom floor. Two scrims (gauzy, semitransparent curtains) will reveal, from time to time, a world of serfs, standing in mute suffering and reproach. And wait until you see the Kremlin and the ice-skaters.
Stoppard's intellectual power, his refusal to relinquish contemporary drama to mere psychologizing, requires actors who can convey, naturally and entertainingly, important ideas through dialogue. It's a thrilling cast - any one of these actors will draw an audience to the theater, but to have them all there, working at the top of their craft, under the remarkably intelligent direction of Jack O'Brien, is to feel real joy in theatergoing.
The Coast of Utopia: Voyage
Written by Tom Stoppard. Directed by Jack O'Brien, sets by Bob Crowley and Scott Pask, costumes by Catherine Zuber, lighting by Brian MacDevitt, original music and sound by Mark Bennett.
Cast: Ethan Hawke (Michael Bakunin), Amy Irving (Varvara), Billy Crudup (Belinsky), Richard Easton (Alexander Bakunin), Brian F. O'Byrne (Herzen), Martha Plimpton (Varenka), Jennifer Ehle (Liubov), Jason Butler Harner (Turgenev), David Harbour (Stankevich).
Playing at: Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center, 150 W. 65th St., New York. Through March 10. Tickets $65-$100. Information: Telecharge 1-800-432-7250 or www.lct.org.