By Gregory Kirschling
December 01, 2006 at 05:00 AM EST

Tom Stoppard’s plays are dense but wriggling things, packed tight to bursting with free-floating ideas, philosophies, allusions, jokes, and turnarounds. It never hurts to read one before you see one?especially if you’re lucky enough to see The Coast of Utopia: Voyage, the rousing first brain-buster in his Coast of Utopia trilogy centering on 19th-century Russian intellectuals. For nearly three hours, real-life thinkers we don’t think about much anymore (like Hawke’s Michael Bakunin and O’Byrne’s Alexander Herzen) converse at passionate clips on country, art, Pushkin, the Decembrists, Hegel as ”the algebra of revolution,” and so much more that The New York Times recently published a preshow reading list.

Don’t worry. The work’s considerable bumpy edges are polished awfully smooth by the grand spectacle and bravura staging provided by Jack O’Brien (Stoppard’s director for his 2001 Invention of Love), who manages to make the ideas not only much clearer on the stage than they are on the page, but much funnier, too. And the cast is a dream team: Aside from a powerfully restrained O’Byrne and energetic Hawke, the company includes Jennifer Ehle, Richard Easton, Martha Plimpton, and Billy Crudup, who, as scruffy critic Vissarion Belinsky, steals the show with an unusually moving, lengthy, and droll rant on why — of all improbably compelling topics — his Russia has no national literature.