For Email Marketing you can trust


A group of people on a stage

Description automatically generated
The Ensemble of Patriots (Photo: Matthew Murphy)


By Marc Miller

It's a constant issue with Peter Morgan: How much are we to believe? The playwright/ screenwriter/ TV writer traffics in dramatizations of 20th and 21st century historic figures and is responsible for, among other works, The Queen, The Crown, Frost/Nixon, and The Audience. So... the guy's good. But we're always left guessing as to how much of the conflicts he dramatizes among heads of state and their retinue is documented, and how much sprang out of his fertile imagination.

So it is with Patriots, Morgan's West End import detailing the rise and precipitous fall of Boris Berezovsky, the Russian billionaire, business oligarch, and genius mathematician. If you don't come to Patriots steeped in knowledge of recent Russian history, and I didn't, you may be a little lost at first. It does sort itself out, and you get an education, as well as some fairly potent drama. It just never quite catches fire.

But Michael Stuhlbarg, our Berezovsky, sure does. After a brief and somewhat pointless prologue, with Boris's mom (Rosie Benton) being apprised of her nine-year-old son's gift for numbers, we're thrust into Club Logovaz, a profitable, decadent niterie the fiftyish Berezovsky runs. There, as Morgan's script has it, he is "doing what he always seems to be doing: five things at once." Stuhlbarg, looking quite a lot like the real article, offers a sensationally detailed performance, loose-limbed and effusive, and with maybe the most expressive speaking voice on Broadway right now. We get immediately that Berezovsky is an operator, a skilled one, sweeping aside personal issues with his wife and daughter while setting up business deals.

Currently the self-described "most powerful man in Russia," he's trying to build a car dealership in St. Petersburg, and that means negotiating with its deputy mayor, one Vladimir Putin (Will Keen). Here's where the evening's one shock comes in: Putin is, at this mid-'90s point, a colorless functionary, averse to bribes and on the timid side, despite his KGB background.

A person standing on a stage with a person in a suit

Description automatically generated
Michael Stuhlbarg, Will Keen (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

Much of what follows is a chronicle of the evolving, souring Putin-Berezovsky relationship. Boris mentors him, pushing him into the Yeltsin administration and up the ladder to the presidency, where he mistakenly assumes Putin will further his own ambitions to westernize Russia. What starts as a mutually supportive pairing turns into cold hate and Berezovsky's undoing-mostly because, if we're to believe Morgan, Berezovsky resented Putin being, to his way of thinking, insufficiently grateful.

There's much more. Berezovsky lures Alexander Litvinenko (Alex Hurt) from the Federal Security Service into his employ, where he's fatally poisoned by forces probably under Putin's thumb. He teams with the young would-be oligarch Roman Abramovich (Luke Thallon) to acquire the oil giant Sibneft, turning both into billionaires, until more Putin machinations, with Abramovich's aid, divest Berezovsky of his entire fortune. He buys a controlling interest in the state TV channel, only to lose it to Abramovich. And he maintains a touching cordiality with his old math prof (Ronald Guttman), a philosophical type who is contented with his lot, in marked contrast to our protagonist.

Women don't count for much in this universe. We never even find out what happens to Mrs. Berezovsky (they divorced, and he remarried), and while Stella Baker, Marianna Gailus, and Camila Canó-Flavia fill out the cast, they haven't much to do; Baker is a suitably worried Mrs. Litvinenko, and Gailus amusingly impersonates a TV anchor whose principles turn on a dime. We also get that Berezovsky is into the ladies, young ones. But all we see of that is an encounter with a Russian bimbo, who falls asleep while he's on the phone. Which he is a lot.

How much of the Boris-Vladimir antipathy, if any, stemmed from Berezovsky's being a Jew, and a grasping, antisemitic-stereotype one at that? It's not clear, and entertaining as Keen's transition from milquetoast official to, well, Vladimir Putin is, we don't see inside his soul (maybe he doesn't have one). As for Berezovsky, Stuhlbarg is nothing if not expert, but the character careens from naked ambition to bullying imperviousness to crafty negotiation to justified self-pity to a certain amount of charm, only when necessary.

A person standing on a stage with a person in a suit

Description automatically generated
Will Keen (Photo: Michael Murphy)

It's a workout, but once these qualities are revealed, there's not a lot of variance to Boris Berezovsky, and director Rupert Goold seems over-reliant on Stuhlbarg's virtuosity to keep us engrossed. He also presides over a visually unstimulating production, with Miriam Buether's unexciting unit set, Buether and Deborah Andrews' accurate-enough period costumes, and Jack Knowles' lighting, which emphasizes the red. Well, it is Russia.

I was always interested, but never riveted. Patriots is exhaustive in its surveying of the petty disagreements and larger philosophical differences that helped shape Russian politics from the '90s to the present, and there's perhaps some comforting validation in witnessing a superpower that's even more corrupt and immoral than the one we're living in. But Morgan's eye for detail-so much historical minutiae, so many subsidiary characters-can be exhausting. He's not big on humor. And when the central conflict boils down to who helped whom how, and how thankful the beneficiary should be, we're left a little hungry.

At the Ethel Barrymore Theatre,

243 W. 47th St.
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes