23 July 2024
Review | On Broadway, Vladimir Putin remains an enigma
0 6 mins 3 mths

NEW YORK — A strongman doesn’t simply spring to power but is elevated by the forces of his time. The rise of Vladimir Putin, from a deputy mayor who still drives his parents’ car to de facto Russian dictator, is the most salient narrative thread in “Patriots,” which opens on Broadway on Monday night. But the drama onstage at the Barrymore Theatre targets a less notorious figure: the blustering oligarch who plucked Putin from obscurity.

Written by royal-family annalist and “The Crown” creator Peter Morgan, “Patriots” tackles territory less familiar to audiences stateside or in London, where this production premiered at the Almeida Theater in 2022. “In the West you have no idea,” Boris Berezovsky (Michael Stuhlbarg) says at the outset, as Morgan throws down his own gauntlet.

It proves tough territory to conquer, despite the Sturm und Drang of this staging by Almeida artistic director Rupert Goold (Netflix, a co-producer on the show, is reportedly developing a screen adaptation). Morgan’s choice to focus on Berezovsky, a pivotal figure in shaping post-Soviet Russia (and installing its authoritarian leader), is a promising one. But “Patriots” suffers from a slipperiness of both focus and scale, dramatizing historical incidents and backroom deals while only thinly sketching the characters behind them.

Berezovsky’s motivation, at least, is clear. Fielding a flurry of calls from behind a desk (no to his teenage daughter, yes to his mistress), he tells an associate, “It’s always good to be rich.” On a raised platform encircled by a mottled and underlit red-brick wall (the set is by Miriam Buether and lighting by Jack Knowles), the pugnacious businessman looks like a mad scientist concocting new ways to make money.

In amber-lit flashbacks to Berezovsky as a young math prodigy, he tells his professor (Ronald Guttman) that he wants to win the Nobel Prize for the sake of a million dollars and gloating rights. Berezovsky’s abandoned ambition is another tip-off that he’s going to become a very greedy man who makes very big mistakes.

Stuhlbarg gives Berezovsky a stormy and gesticulating wittiness, but there is little more than pure avarice behind his actions — from striking a deal with ascendant oil mogul Roman Abramovich (Luke Thallon) to selecting an in-pocket replacement for Boris Yeltsin (Paul Kynman). Berezovsky’s allegiance to democracy is entirely bound to his capitalist exploits, so an eventual fallout with his protégé on principle is tough to swallow.

Putin, played with bone-chilling reserve by Will Keen, is clearly the most intriguing person onstage and the play’s reason for being. “Patriots” is most gripping when it delivers brief, often wordless, glimpses at the inner workings of a burgeoning mastermind: Watch Keen widen his stance to find the 5-foot-7 leader’s signature bullish posture. Notice his right hand twitching like a lit fuse while the rest of body stands stiff as dynamite. Keen’s quietly magnificent performance has the bottled intensity of a homemade bomb, and the show feels less dangerous in his absence.

His drastic devolution into a despot from an anti-corruption liberal is kept offstage and described secondhand (Thallon’s Abramovich is almost exclusively saddled with factual exposition). We see that Putin learned to control the media from Berezovsky, and watch him destroy his maker at his own game (with help from wall-to-wall projection design by Ash J Woodward). But the play too often keeps its most compelling character at bay, instead scattering its attention among men whose fates are intertwined — including former FSB officer turned Berezovsky protector Alexander Litvinenko (Alex Hurt) — but whose characters are unevenly developed.

Unlike Morgan’s previous political plays, “The Audience,” about the queen meeting with a succession of prime ministers, and “Frost/Nixon,” about televised interviews between the two, “Patriots” lacks a taut organizing principle. It also has a lot of contextual information to relay (broad declarations that begin with “the West” and “the Russian people” are frequent refrains), yet could still include more. The steady march of history, and flashy transitions between scenes (aided by sound designer and composer Adam Cork) lend the play its forward motion, rather than investment in its characters or their fates.

Some may already know about Berezovsky’s flight to asylum in the United Kingdom, where he sued Abramovich for billions (and lost), his associate Litvinenko was poisoned and Berezovsky himself died in disputed circumstances. The lone survivor among them, in “Patriots” as in the present, remains inscrutably remote.

Patriots, through June 23 at the Barrymore Theatre in New York. 2 hours, 30 minutes. patriotsbroadway.com

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