In the basement of Lincoln Center during one of our final notes sessions for Salvage, the third installment of Tom Stoppard's eight-hour epic play, The Coast of Utopia, I remember Tom saying in his inimitable Czech-British-Crazy accent, "Ethan, the way you played the Bakunin about four days ago was spontaneous, thrilling and truly exquisite. But now, it feels somehow as if we have opened up the doors and just let anyone play the role."
"I don't know how to apply that note, Tom," I answered.
"You seemed to have mined the text for some unexpected laughter, and I just want you to know that every time the audience guffaws, some piece of my heart is breaking."
How one applies a Stoppard note remains elusive to me, but after performing his masterpiece on mid-19th century Russian radicals much of last year, what is clear is that he's a man dedicated to a level of excellence that's awe-inspiring. I remember when I was younger being intimidated by the intellect, scope and verbiage of his plays; they were impressive but written for some élite group to which I had not been given membership. But I came to find that more often than not, the audience left the theater impressed with themselves. He'd challenged them, and they'd answered. While most of our popular entertainment encourages us to romanticize and fetishize being 17, Tom invites us to sit at the adult table. Once presented with the complexities of his ideas, characters and language, we find ourselves exhilarated to realize that adult life is much wilder, deeper, funnier and more mercurial, beautiful and unknowable than any 17-year-old could foresee. In 2007 Tom gave America two of his finest plays (Utopia and Rock 'n' Roll). At 70, he's still listening to the world with a curious, limber, compassionate mind and is pushing himself into the most thrilling period of what has already been a stunning life in the theater.
Hawke is an actor, writer and director based in New York City
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