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What's in the name

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February 22, 2007

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isaac

so... is he authentic or a fraud? how do you make the determination?

David Cote

Groan... why'd I know some smart-aleck like you would ask this? I'm not trying to establish a catechism of authenticity here. Or set up a Fraud-o-Matic. But since you ask, I'd say COU was a good-faith attempt by TS to share his enthusiasm over Russian intellectual history, often poorly dramatized. The pomp and publicity surrounding the show does have the unmistakable stink of "snob hit" or "white elephant."

George Hunka

Well, COU is also very much one of those metatheatrical "events" that come down the pike once in a while, and it wears its ambitions very much on its sleeve: it *wants* to be a huge, gargantuan, elephantine ... thing. And that's exactly what it is. Having not seen the shows I can't pass judgment, but I'm willing to accept your judgment, David, that it's the product of an (aging) university wit (though Stoppard's one of the few British playwrights around these days who admits to politically Tory inclinations, so his take on these revolutionaries is probably of more than passing interest); that's the way R&G, The Real Thing, etc. always seemed to me. We'll have to see whether Rock 'n' Roll, which was far more acclaimed in London than COU, is as good as everyone says it is or more of the same.

David

Metatheatrical, George? Not sure I know what you mean by that, unless you're referring to the inordinate amount of ink the Times has spilled on the production, making it more of a Cultural Event, than, well, 3 rather long plays. (I saw Maureen Dowd twice at Utopia, but have yet to see her refer to it in her column.) In terms of style, the plays run the gamut from surreal sight gags to hyperbolic costume drama, but there's not really any direct address, breaking the fourth wall, calling attention to itself as a play. As for Stoppard's right-wing leanings, if time (or frankly, interest) permitted, one could assay a close reading of the trilogy's politics. I think that Stoppard would be revealed to be critical of revolutionary ideologies and in favor of authoritarian, class-based, gradualist reform.

Alison Croggon

Rock'n'Roll got a fabulously memorable shredding in Encore Theatre Magazine. Excellent schadenfreude. I was in London when it premiered - no, didn't see the play itself - so can have no opinion on it (nor will I ever have one on COU, since I seriously doubt it will reach our shores). But I did find the surrounding hype fairly off-putting. Myself, I went off Stoppard fairly early in his career, despite his considerable abilities. COU sounds a little too educational for my tastes. But then, I will never know...

George Hunka

Yes, I meant "metatheatrical" in that its eventness (if we can call it that) is probably far more to the point than anything the plays themselves could possibly be about, or even whether they're any good or not. The hype reminds me of those old posters P.T. Barnum used to slap up when his circus came to town: "3 (Count' Em, 3!) Plays! 9 Spectacular Hours of British Style Dramatics, Performed by 44 BIG STARS of Hollywood and Broadway Fame! And ***SUPER INTELLECTUAL BRAINSTUFFS*** about Real People!" So far nobody's mentioned any dancing bears, which is probably a good thing. And, right, they're just really three fairly mainstream, slightly overlong (apparently) plays.

That Encore Theatre Magazine review is worth a link:

http://www.encoretheatremagazine.co.uk/?p=51

David Cote

Yeah I read that Encore lashing of Rock & Roll a few months back. Yeeoch. Very funny. And yet another area in which Brit theater is shaming us (after a robust nonprofit scene, daring programming, thinking critics and political engagement). Where is NYC's anonymous blog heaping scorn and ridicule on the heads of our lazy, conservative theater institutions? Where's our gutting of holy-bovine playwrights, actors and directors? I throw down the gauntlet people. (And George, I never use "metatheatrical" that way. For me, metatheatricality is direct-address and all form of self-referentiality inside the work itself. Outside the work, it's all just publicity and hype and cultural capital getting and spending. But to each his own usage.)

George Hunka

No, it was really my bad, David, my apologies for misusing the term. I can only plead sloppy writing. As you know, everybody needs an editor.

To your first question: I don't know. But as you note that may be among the least of New York theatre's problems.

tired playgoer

Agree with you on your assessment of Salvage and would also acknowledge the sharp, supple work by Hamilton, Plimpton, Overbey, Ehle and a terrific Scott Parkinson as Sleptsov, uttering the words "what you are is a dead man" to devastating effect. However, there were far more problems than just the bothersome accent for Mr. O'Byrne and frequently wished it were Crudup or even Harner tackling the character instead, even to miss the pleasures of their Belinksky and Turgenev.

Between the massive casts of Utopia and Coram Boy, nice to see so many actors gainfully employed this spring season.

tired playgoer

One more thought about Crudup's Belinsky. For me, the highlight of the entire nine hours was Crudup's superbly delivered monologue in Voyage, when he answers, with exasperation, Bakunin's question about Russian literature. Something within that monologue began to mirror the entire LCT experience for me, what with the over-the-top kudos and genuflections from critics other than you, the pomp and the publicity about the show: "our literature is nothing but an elegant pastime for the upper classes, like dancing or cards." At $100 a pop for an orchestra seat (and $300 for today's marathon, not including the meals or the babysitter's hourly fee), it is not untoward to say the same of Utopia.

David

Tired Playgoer: At the risk of pretentiously quoting myself, yeah, it was easy to reflect Belinsky's lovely speeches against the play itself. Here's my lede from the review of Voyage:

Throughout Voyage, the first play in Tom Stoppard’s three-part epic about the ideological groundwork for the Russian revolution, 19th-century Russia is likened to many things. Literary critic Belinsky (Billy Crudup) is especially fond of cramming that continental expanse into a neat metaphor: In one scene alone, he despairingly compares his homeland to a costume ball in which everyone comes dressed as a differing nationality, or to a waif whose growth has been stunted by untrusting parents. His best conceit is also infant-based: “Look at us!” Belinsky cries. “A gigantic child with a tiny head stuffed full of idolatry for everything foreign…and a huge inert body abandoned to its own muck.” Apt though this jeremiad is, one can’t help but point out that Voyage is the obverse of Belinski’s image: a giant head stuffed with ideas and facts atop a tiny body that twitches constantly but doesn’t travel very far.

tired playgoer

Ha! You're not being pretentious in the least and thank you for reminding me of your review (which I'll revisit and reread). Agreed on Belinsky's lovely speeches too. The first play was the most enjoyable of the three for me for many reasons and if I'm not in error, seems to have been the one that you liked best as well.

David

I need to sit down and read through these plays, casting and directing them in my mind. The first had Crudup and those wonderful speeches, but I was much more engrossed by the plot/characters of Shipwreck. I found myself put off by Voygage's combination of fast-forwarding through several years in Act I, then rewinding 12 years and relocating to Moscow for Act II. I was thoroughly confused by the end. In retrospect, I think he could have streamlined the rush of quasi-Chekhovian scenes in Act I to establish Premukhino as a sort of idyllic Russia in macrocosm more efficiently and movingly. The structuring of Voyage just seemed needlessly confusing. Dramaturgically, the whole enterprise is a mess. Not quite a BBC TV miniseries, not quite a decently constructed play. Perhaps best enjoyed as historical fiction in the comfort of one's own home, within easy reach of those notorious primary sources that Stoppard protesteth you DON'T need to know.

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