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February 23, 2007

TT: Utopia is its name

I may be in Los Angeles, but that didn't stop me from reviewing two Broadway shows in this week's Wall Street Journal drama column. Today I comment on Salvage, the final installment of Tom Stoppard’s Coast of Utopia trilogy, and a revival of Journey’s End, R.C. Sherriff’s once-famous 1928 play about trench warfare in World War I.

My review of Salvage is more in the nature of a preliminary summing-up of The Coast of Utopia:

I am in no doubt whatsoever about the merits of Jack O’Brien’s production. It is a sublime work of theatrical art, a commingling of play and performance so complete that no one lucky enough to see it will ever again read Mr. Stoppard’s words without remembering how Mr. O’Brien and his colleagues brought them to hot-blooded life. Small wonder that Lincoln Center has carried off the dazzling trick of making a box-office smash out of a sequence of plays about a cabal of obscure intellectuals who talk at intimidating length about ideas of considerable complexity. “The Coast of Utopia” is many things, but first—if not foremost—it is a rattling good show….

I confess to wondering whether I would have been quite so impressed with “The Coast of Utopia” had I first seen it in a less memorable production, and it may also be that I responded to it so strongly because I share its author’s anti-utopian vision of the tragedy of modernity. But countless other viewers who feel otherwise have been no less deeply moved, suggesting that Mr. Stoppard has succeeded in transfiguring the unpromising raw material of politics and turning it into high art….

“Journey’s End” was last seen on Broadway in September of 1939, when it ran for just 16 performances. (I suspect that American audiences didn’t much care to be reminded of one world war just as another was getting under way.) Back then it was considered a landmark in theatrical realism, one of the first attempts to portray combat on stage in something like a reasonably honest way, and we have no shortage of testimony indicating that its impact on those who first saw it was overwhelming. But eight decades of increasingly frank and grisly war movies—many of which have drawn, wittingly or not, on the dramatic devices originally used by Sherriff—have leached away its harsh immediacy.

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Posted February 23, 2007 12:00 PM

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