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Photo: Matthew Murphy Review
Not since Shakespeare has any writer has been more fascinated with power – or made audiences so complicit in his obsession – than Peter Morgan, who has scored critical and commercial successes with “Frost/Nixon,” “The Queen” and, more recently, “The Crown.” His keen sense of getting inside the heads of those who sometimes uneasily wear, both figuratively and literally, the “crown” is consistently remarkable.

Whether Morgan will be able to pull of the same magic – at least commercially – with the new play “Patriots,” now at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, remains to be seen. Handsomely directed by the inventive Rupert Goold (and staged on Miriam Buethler’s clever castle-cum-nightclub unit set), “Patriots” features top-tier central performances by the hypnotic Michael Stuhlbarg as the egotistical Russian oligarch Boris Berozovsky and a colder-than-Siberian ice Will Keen as current Russian president Vladimir Putin that demand your attention.

However, here’s the rub: While Morgan’s other works focus primarily on subjects and personalities familiar to Americans, “Patriots” is most likely to appeal to the always-tuned-into CNN set, who likely spent a couple of decades deeply involved in the intricacies of Russian politics. Here, most of the names mean little to most of us.

The biggest exception, of course, is Putin, portrayed here as a soft-spoken, unimportant deputy mayor who with quiet cunning and determination, as well as Berezovsky’s considerable help, works his way to the top, ultimately coming off as a modern-day Macbeth without the need of any wives or witches to stir his proverbial pot.

The other major exceptions are fellow oligarch Roman Abromavich (a very impressive Luke Thallon) and Alexander Litvinenko (a fine Alex Hurt), the Russian security specialist who defected to Britian to protect Berezovsky and then died, tragically and suddenly, after ingesting polonium-2010 in November 2006 (an incident in which Putin repeatedly denied any involvement). Still, Litvinenko never seems like much more than a pawn in the almost-endless chess game between Putin and Berezovksy. (Indeed, for a man who has an advanced degree in decision making, the inside joke in “Patriots” – often verbalized – is that Berezovsky is a terrible decision maker.)

Further, most of the show’s other supporting characters seem superfluous, and the recurring presence of Berezovksy’s mathematics professor Perelman (Ronald Guttman) is rather annoying. Every time the two have a chat, it’s like watching Harry Potter asking advice from Dumbledore.

All this said, I think one can understand the show’s success in London; Berozovsky spent many years of his self-imposed exile there after he made the top of Putin’s enemy list even after almost literally placing him in the presidential chair after the resignation of Boris Yeltsin.

More importantly, when Berozovsky went to court in 2013 to wrestle his “rightful” share of the money he made with Abramovich – in a deal which had no paper trail -- it was deemed “the trial of the century” and Berozovky’s humiliating defeat, heavily covered by the British media, all but sealed his personal and financial fate. But I doubt many U.S. audiences are even vaguely aware of this titanic courtroom battle, especially as it took place when America was still dealing with the social, financial and military aftermath of 9/11.

As a result, “Patriots,” which prizes talk over action, can often feel like a college history class you were forced into taking. Thankfully, there’s no pop quiz at the end!

By Brian Scott Lipton

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Open/Close Dates
Opening 4/22/2024
Closing Open-ended

Theatre Info
Ethel Barrymore Theatre
234 West 47th Street
New York, NY 10036