Monday, April 16, 2007

Whimpering across the finish line

Braving a raging rainstorm, we caught Salvage, the third and final chapter of Tom Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia yesterday afternoon. Hours and hours of Russian philosophizing, and what do we, the hardy audience members, get? A wet blanket of a play. A timid whimper. A soap opera that dares not speak its name.

Unlike the first two installments, which offered a variety of points of view within a motley group of (mostly) Russian characters, Salvage is dominated by one person; unfortunately, it happens to be played by Brían F. O'Byrne, in one of the most single-note performances I've ever seen. It's actually rather amazing to see an actor so steadfastly avoid any range over the course of so many hours. This was already germinating in Voyage and Shipwreck, but it's a lot worse in Salvage since there's nobody else to pick up the slack: The other men are reduced to bellowing gasbags (particularly Ethan Hawke's Bakunin) and the women pretty much disappear—the etch-a-sketch treatment awarded to Malwida von Meysenbug, played with very dry humor by Jennifer Ehle, is particularly irritating.

While Jack O'Brien did a decent job of staging this whale of a show (making me very curious to see his take on Puccini's Il Trittico at the Met next month), I never, over the course of nearly nine hours, felt the thrill of watching ideas in action—and yes, it can be thrilling to watch ideas ferment on stage. Come to think of it, I never felt the thrill of watching action, period. I can only shake my head in astonishment as to how little punch The Coast of Utopia packs.

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