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    On the Stage: Salvage

    This weekend I had the fortune of watching a play with a Theater Arts major. What I realized is that my knowledge of theater is embarrassingly minimal, and that I have been too fair to the plays I have reviewed in the past. To really appreciate or not appreciate, as is the case with the last few plays I watched, one has to uphold extremely high standards. Tom Stoppard’s ‘Coast of Utopia’ trilogy reinforces this particular notion so much so that it’ll be quite some time before I see another play that can match this one’s virtuosity.

    The Lincoln Center is currently playing the third and concluding part of this trilogy, an artistic spectacle called ‘Salvage.’ The background is surprisingly archaic, filled with life stories of 19th-century Russian revolutionaries. Yet, the play easily appeals to the sensibilities of today’s soap opera-watching audiences. Jack O’Brien has to be commended for his sheer ability to concentrate drama into a play that is spiced with racy narratives about the sexual histories of European aristocrats. More than simply an intellectual recollection of a moving historical period, the play is entertaining in the literal respect.

    You will require an ample amount of patience because ‘Salvage’ carves three decades into 2 hours and 30 minutes, which is too large of a period for the attention span of the average American viewer. Yet, it is surprisingly easy to sit through this or even the eight hours of stage time that the trilogy offers altogether. This is probably because there is so much irony in the play that it will be hard to tear yourself away from your seat. The play is, after all, actually about dystopia.

    Every scene establishes the futility of creating order, thus propagating the natural rule of chaos. The set supports this, as Bob Crowley and Scott Pask both succeed with historical objects like a crashed crystal chandelier and a rotting piano that are reminiscent of a chaotic Europe. O’Brien lays it out for you, for example, when a banner celebrating a political victory is used as a sleeping blanket for a young child. This shattering of audience expectations resonates throughout the play.

    The trilogy’s central-most character is the political theorist, Alexander Herzen, played by Brian F. O’Byrne. I found O’Byrne’s delivery nearly perfect simply because I feel drawn toward lines that one does not understand immediately, but needs to ruminate over with their theater pal. In the ending scene, Herzen says, ‘It takes wit and courage to make our way while our way is making us, with no consolation to count on but art and the summer lightning of personal happiness.’

    Set in England for the most part, ‘Salvage’ collects various stories and winds them together for a timeless narrative. Herzen and his friend Nicholas Ogarev (Josh Hamilton) establish a subversive printing press and periodicals. In one instance, they shift households when they set up a sexual m’eacute;nage through which Ogarev’s wife, Natasha (Martha Plimpton) becomes Herzen’s mistress.

    The best part of ‘Salvage’ is the character’s ability to morph in front of our eyes, something that only lengthened trilogies can bring. The actors expertly reincarnate by playing a different role than the earlier installments. Any fan of ‘GATTACA’ will be pleased to sight Ethan Hawke’s Bakunin (the anarchist) as ever more obnoxious. Furthermore, the actors grow old to fill in any gaps created by transitions in the time period. Herzen’s fixation on personal inconsistencies worsens, as he portrays a physique that ages with more refinement with the play’s progression.

    The beauty of watching ‘Salvage’ is that it can stand on its own. Both ‘Voyage’ and ‘Shipwrecked’ are considered to be more artful and tasteful versions of ‘Salvage’ (although this opinion is that of my theater buddy because I have not seen these). But after watching ‘Salvage,’ there is no doubt in my mind to work my way backwards in this trilogy.

    ‘Salvage’ is playing at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in Lincoln Center.

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