‘Patriots’ Broadway Review: After Serving Up the Royals, Peter Morgan Takes on the Russians

“The Crown” creator delivers a first-rate comedy about Putin and the oligarchs — the second act of his play is another story

Patriots
Patriots

I know only slightly more about the succession of Russia’s colorful leaders than I do about the succession of Great Britain’s boring royalty. Never having watched an episode of Peter Morgan’s “The Crown,” I do occasionally come across an article that reveals some fabrication or complete disregard for the facts that this long-running Netflix series has perpetrated about the House of Windsor.

I remember interviewing David Frost at the Broadway premiere of Morgan’s “Frost/Nixon” and his listing all the inaccuracies in that play about his famous TV interviews with Richard Nixon. The biggest whopper had to do with his research team’s discovery of a transcript of a crucial conversation between Charles Colson and the 37th President of the United States. Frost had the information for months – it led to Nixon saying, “When the president does it, that means it’s not illegal” – rather than the tape being discovered on the eve of the fourth and final interview. In “Frost/Nixon,” Morgan had concocted that late discovery to gin up suspense and paint the three previous TV interviews as puffy and pro-Nixon. 

I don’t have Vladimir Putin in town to ask him what he thinks of Morgan’s play “Patriots,” which opened Monday at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre after a run in London. In a truth-and-accuracy contest, it’s impossible to say who would win, Putin or Morgan. I don’t know where Morgan telescoped the facts in “Patriots” or if he just made stuff up about how Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky took the ousted deputy mayor of St. Petersburg and set him on his path to be the current tyrant-president of Russia. One thing is for sure: Morgan knows how to tell a good story, fact or fiction, and the first act of “Patriots” is an absorbing first-rate comedy.

In a Broadway season filled with big performances, there’s none bigger or busier than Michael Stuhlbarg’s portrayal of Berezovsky. He leaves no gesture, no inflection, no dance step unexplored. Berezovsky was a child prodigy, but rather than taking his phenomenal aptitude for math and going into academia like a normal genius, he instead made billions by becoming Russia’s top oligarch after the collapse of the U.S.S.R.

Stuhlbarg’s spewing of Morgan’s aphorisms recall the Old Fool in “Boris Godunov” and sometimes provokes applause from the audience. It’s not so much a dramatic performance as it is a musical-comedy performance without the songs.

Beyond being highly theatrical, Stuhlbarg’s performance doesn’t come into complete focus until Will Keen, playing Putin, begins to share stage time. Keen is right there at the beginning, but only briefly. He disappears for big chunks of the first act as Stuhlbarg rips up the stage at the Barrymore Theatre. When Keen is finally given a few speeches, he limits himself to one gesture (a straightening of the arms), one tic (a jagged tilt of the head), one tone (monotonous) and absolutely no expression.

Rupert Goold directs, and the contrast he provokes in these two actors tells us everything. Stuhlbarg needs to play it big. Keen doesn’t. He’s playing Putin. Stuhlbarg’s Berezovsky can run all over the place making fun of this ex-deputy mayor who’s out of work, drives a clunker and does a stint as a cabbie. The suspense is built into the story, and we only have to wait for the one to become president.

When that wait is over, Keen doesn’t make his performance any bigger. He doesn’t have to. He is Putin. Keen enjoys a wonderful silent moment in front of a mirror. Miriam Buether’s red brick set resembles the inside of a Chernobyl silo, and a huge door upstage opens to reveal a huge mirror. Finally, Keen gets to add a new pose (his two feet now a yard apart) and a new gesture (hand cocked against the side of face) to his acting repertoire. It’s easily the most memorable moment in “Patriots.”

After Putin’s ascension to power, Berezvosky had to leave Russia and take up residence in the south of France and then London. In act one, the character is an amoral manipulator. Somehow, he grows a conscience during the intermission. Suddenly, Morgan has Berezvosky spouting lines from some civics class that no longer exists. The second act also gets muddled in a lawsuit brought by Berezvosky against an old RT News business partner (Luke Thallon) that the British court rejects. Unless you’re familiar with the case, it’s necessary to check Wikipedia to know what really happened. More awkward is the reintroduction of a professor character from the first act.

When Boris is a wee lad in act one, he has a mentor named Professor Perelman (Ronald Guttman). Now that he’s broke and exiled in act two, Berezvosky suddenly feels the need to telephone the old man to receive a few lectures on math, life and finding a good woman to be your wife after your mother has died and she can no longer take care of you.

Ultimately, the first-rate comedy of the first act turns into the second-rate melodrama of the second act.

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