Tom Stoppard's heady trilogy about 19th-century revolutionary Europe

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... Perhaps Stoppard's most successful effort to meld his signature philosophical and linguistic dazzle with emotional force is The Invention of Love (1997). The plot involves an unrequited (gay) love and the subsequent retreat to classical scholarship of the 19th-century British poet A.E. Housman. Appearing yet again is Stoppard's icon, Oscar Wilde, who contrasts Housman's repression with his own passionate excess. "Better a fallen rocket," he declares, "than never a burst of light."

Like Travesties, The Invention of Love is a memory play, but in this case the narrator is dead and on the verge of crossing the mythical River Styx to the underworld. Housman — or rather the character AEH recalls his life, "marked by long silences," through a haze of regret. The production I saw, at Philadelphia's Wilma Theater, found a perfect balance between head and heart — precisely the balance that eludes AEH, and that has often seemed so daunting for the playwright himself.

And so we come to The Coast of Utopia, the epic, episodic trilogy about the origins of Russian radicalism that qualifies as Stoppard's most ambitious work. Directed by Trevor Nunn, it premiered four years ago in London to respectfully mixed reviews and is now being staged in New York, with touches of brilliance, by Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont. (Meanwhile Stoppard's latest, Rock 'n' Roll, about Czech freedom fighters, rock music, and English Marxists, is playing London's West End.)

The Coast of Utopia — which ran about nine hours, not counting lunch and dinner breaks, at the Royal National Theatre — has been trimmed slightly for American consumption. The first part of the trilogy, Voyage, which I saw during previews, clocked in at a manageable two and a half hours. (Opening night has been pushed back until November 27 because Tony Award-winner Richard Easton, who plays the patriarch Alexander Bakunin, was hospitalized; David Manis does fine as his understudy.) Shipwreck starts previews December 6 for a December 21 opening, and Salvage begins performances January 30 for a February 15 premiere. During the final three and a half weeks of performances, which end March 10, audiences will be able to see all three parts in succession. Unfortunately, the three marathons now scheduled are already sold out — a shame, because this seems like the best way to experience the trilogy....

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