By Cameron Hughes

After a limited run in London, Patriots begins its (also limited) Broadway run this week. It opens in mid-1990’s post-Soviet Union Russia while Boris Yeltsin is in power and struggles to continue his predecessor Mikhail Gorbachev’s efforts to steer the county into a more transparent social democracy. In this climate where privately-owned companies are allowed to thrive, many Russian businessmen (the oligarchs) attain unprecedented wealth and power, none more so than our central character Boris Berezovsky (Michael Stuhlbarg). In this uncertain, troubling time (based on true events), we watch as Berezovsky, through cunning, political connections, and secret under-the-table dealings, becomes a billionaire.

Through flashbacks we learn Berezovsky was a child math prodigy dreaming of the Nobel Prize. Stuhlbarg is fascinating playing both the adult Berezovsky AND the younger version. With a change in posture and stance, an altered expression, and a higher pitch to his voice, Stuhlbarg transitions effortlessly into the cocky gifted nine-year-old. This is but one impressive moment among many in a memorable accomplished performance.

The prickly young Berezovsky’s interests soon turn toward wealth and he uses his skills – in a newly relaxed Russia – to become one of the country’s most powerful oligarchs, ultimately owning a prominent television station and exploiting his closeness with Yeltsin and his family.

We’re introduced to the unknown Vladimir Putin (Will Keen) after his years in the KGB when he’s struggling as the deputy mayor of St. Petersburg. He seems almost boy scout-ish at this point, refusing the favor of a car from Berezovsky because he doesn’t accept bribes, prompting Berezovsky to ask if he’s really a Russian!

We watch with fascination as this mysterious Putin is groomed by Berezovsky to be Yeltzin’s successor because it’s believed he’ll be easy to control. If Berezovsky only knew… That’s the tricky thing about being a king maker; once you’ve made the king, they’re much harder to control.

Will Keen is excellent as the morally ambiguous and cagey Putin. We watch him evolve from a nobody into the ruthless dictator he is today. An effective use is made of a full-length mirror upstage center. Putin continues to preen and alter his appearance in the mirror trying to rid himself of a weak stature and practicing poses and a wide-legged stance to give an illusion of power. Seeing Keen depict this transformation is a wonder.

There are many excellent performances in this stellar cast, including Ronald Guttman as Berezovsky’s Professor Perelman, Luke Thallon as Roman Abromovich, and Alex Hurt as Alexander Litvinenko.

The story (by The Crown’s Peter Morgan) is at its heart one of opportunistic self-serving relationships. Putin embraces Berezovsky’s promise of advancement. Berezovsky is in bed with Yeltzin and his family to further his own wealth and success. Roman Abromovich is mentored by Berezovsky when he agrees to give up 50% of their new combined company so he can benefit from Berezovsky’s connections. (That this agreement is made under-the-table with nothing in writing will later haunt Berezovsky.) We watch in fascination and horror as Abromovich soon rises to power himself through his loyalty to Putin.

If there is a weakness here, it’s in not having anyone to root for. Most of the primary characters are corrupt, so it’s hard to make an emotional connection to anyone here. What it is though is a fascinating depiction of power and political intrigue which remains timely today. It’s not so much about Russia as it is about the world. This is a depiction which holds our attention for its roughly 2 hour  and 35 minute running time (with one intermission). It’s a deft show which enthralls and fascinates rather than moves, but that still makes for an engaging evening of theater. Opening this week for a limited run ending on June 23, 2024, this is a show which is Shakespearian in its scope. With an engaging set by Miriam Buether, tickets are likely to be hard to come by.

 

PATRIOTS by Peter Morgan, directed by Rupert Goold, composer & sound design by Adam Cork

With: Will Keen (Vladimir Putin), Michael Stuhlbarg (Boris Berezovsky), Luke Thallon (Roman Abramovich), Stella Baker (Marina Litvinenko), Rosie Benton (Anna Berezovsky/Newscaster/Journalist), Jeff Biehl (Teacher/FSB Boss), Peter Bradbury (Alexander Voloshin/Nurse), Camila Canó-Flaviá (Tatiana Yeltsin/Nina Berezovsky/Judge/Lover), Joe Forbrich (FSB Agent/Oligarch/Security), Marianna Gailus (Katya/Pianist/Compromised Newscaster), Ronald Guttman (Professor Perelman), Alex Hurt (Alexander Litvinenko), Paul Kynman (Alexander Korzhakov/Boris Yeltsin/Reporter), Adam Poss (Lawyer/Home Office Spokesman/Newscaster), Nick Rehberger (Assistant/Daniel Kahneman/Russian Captain), and Tony Ward (FSB Agent/Oligarch/Security)

Miriam Buether (scenic design); Deborah Andrews and Miriam Buether (costume design), Jack Knowles (lighting design), Ash J. Woodward (video design), Campbell Young Associates and Susan Corrado (hair, wig, and make-up design), and Jeff Englander (moving light programmer).

Patriots is playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre (243 West 47th Street, New York, NY). Performances are Mondays @2pm, Tuesdays @7pm, Wednesdays @1pm and 7pm, Thursdays @7pm, Fridays @7pm, and Saturdays @1pm and 7pm. Running time is 2 hours 35 minutes including one intermission. Tickets start at $51.99 and are available here.