The Coast of Utopia: Voyage, the first part of Tom Stoppard's epic trilogy about 19th-century Russian intellectuals, offers a really engaging evening at the theater, and one that certainly entices you with the promise of more. It doesn't quite reach masterpiece status, but it's definitely one of the more commendable plays I've seen in a while. It draws you in the way a great multi-part period drama on public television might. And it wasn't too hard to bring something like the BBC's classic Pride and Prejudice (think Colin Firth) to mind, what with Jennifer Ehle emoting on stage. I really wanted to like her character and performance more, but it seemed like she was breaking into tears at every other moment. Granted, the play takes place over nearly a decade, so a little cry every other year doesn't make for a highly depressive case exactly, but still. I found it rather appropriate that Ethan Hawke was in the cast, since there were several times where I thought: Look, it's 1830's Russia's answer to the 1990's American slacker. All these wannabe and I guess to give them some credit actual philosophical types seemed so ineffectual in the way they're portrayed. Smart-ish people constantly spinning their wheels. The young Bakunin aghast at the possibility of having to study agriculture. Get a real job already! OK, perhaps a bit harsh, and missing the point. I mean we all waffle between philosophies at some point in our lives, no? The other thing I noticed was how impotent all the men seemed to be. Heads in the clouds, too often oblivious to the great and promising women in their lives. Probably the best performance and ultimately least impotent character of this installment arrives in the form of Billy Crudup playing Belinsky, the literary critic. I usually offer extra credit whenever I dislike an actor during his/her opening scene, only to become captivated by his/her performance before the evening is through. Thus could be said of Crudup's turn. I really found his first act entrance to be quite unseemly, but very soon, he has captured the audience's attention, eliciting a rare mid-scene round of applause, following a tour-de-force monologue that reveals his white-hot, choatic passion for philosophy, literature and the very future of Russia. By the second act, he became my go-to guy, the character to watch and cheer for, at the expense of his colleague and sometime verbal sparring partner Bakunin. There is no final flourish from him, but there are enough scenes of his to leave me satisfied. My only out-and-out criticism is that Brian F. O'Byrne manages to totally ruin his character's accent, and offer too much distraction in the second act. This installment ends with some resolution, and some simple symbolism and poetry, but not without leaving you wanting more. It left me feeling thankful: thankful that I've gotten to experience this show, and thankful that I have enough money to buy tickets to the second and third parts. Assuming, of course, they aren't totally sold out by now.
Oh, and a tip o' the hat of course to the bloggy peer pressure of Jaime, which encouraged me to go buy a full-priced ticket to see this.