By Thom Geier
March 13, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT
The Coast of Utopia: Paul Kolnik

One of my earliest theatrical memories was attending, as a young teenager, the eight-hour-plus Dickensian adaptation Nicholas Nickleby. It was a transformative experience that cemented my love for the theater. In the early ’90s, while living in Washington, D.C., I plunked myself down for Robert Schenkkan’s six-hour-plus melodrama, The Kentucky Cycle.

So the prospect of Tom Stoppard’s eight-hour-plus The Coast of Utopia in a one-day marathon was not, in itself, too challenging. But Stoppard is not exactly a populist in the Dickensian tradition, nor does he wallow in the baser soap operatics that propel Schenkkan’s Appalachian epic. His subject — mostly obscure Russian intellectuals in the 19th century — is typically Stoppardian in its pedantic dauntingness.

Curiously, though, it is the intellectual banter that shines most brightly in Coast of Utopia, not the soapy domestic turmoil of the cycle’s central figure, Alexander Herzen (brilliantly embodied by Brian F. O’Byrne). With dozens of top-notch actors on stage, many of them playing different characters in various segments, it’s easy for individuals to emerge as little more than mouthpieces of various points of view before disappearing. Dramatically speaking, that’s not such a bad thing. And it becomes a comfort to watch a recurring lead like raspy-voiced Ethan Hawke as his Michael Bakunin evolves from an impossibly impetuous student to a liver-spotted perpetual revolutionary somewhat divorced from reality.

Director Jack O’Brien does a superb job not just managing the traffic on stage, but also conceiving the material in a visually compelling and fundamentally theatrical way. Despite the number of shifts in locale and time, he achieves remarkably ingenious stage tableaux — from the opening images of roiling fabric waves to the background use of statues representing the peasant masses to the evocation of Édouard Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe. (It’s worth noting that both Nicholas Nickleby and Kentucky Cycle relied on the simple, spare sets meant to evoke more than one location.)

Seeing all three plays in rapid succession, it’s easier to tease out connections between the plays. You recognize, for instance, that when Jennifer Ehle’s Natalie Herzen extols love as a universal ideal to which humans inevitably fall short in Shipwreck (Part 2), she’s echoing similar comments that Billy Crudup’s literary critic Vissarion Belinsky made in Voyage (Part 1). Ehle’s speech — which occurs during a conversation with Amy Irving, playing the practical-minded Maria, an artist’s muse in Paris and estranged wife of a Russian poet — comes during a rare moment when Stoppard allows the women to bring the dorm-room philosophizing of the play firmly into the domestic realm. By the time of the concluding play, Salvage, Stoppard’s liberal use of political and philosophical tropes sometimes fails to blend with the pile-up of romantic entanglements and personal intrigue. But in the end, the overall impact of the play is stunning.

In fact, the biggest challenge — for both audience and performers alike — may be staying sharp for the first act of Shipwreck, which begins at the metabolism-challenging post-lunch time of 3:30 p.m. If you can manage that, you’re in for a heady theatrical treat. B+