“Patriots” review: “The Crown” creator's new play is creatively staged, but lacks insight into Putin's rise

Michael Stuhlbarg stars as Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky, while Will Keen portrays Vladimir Putin.

The Crown may be over, but creator Peter Morgan is far from finished with writing about real-life leaders. His new play Patriots, now playing on Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre after a run in London’s West End last year, seeks to chart the rise to power of one Vladimir Putin. But while the Broadway production boasts creative stage design, it fails to provide useful insight into the politics of post-Soviet Russia.

The primary protagonist of Patriots is Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky (Michael Stuhlbarg), who played an important role in elevating Putin from no-name functionary of the security services to president-for-life — and lived to regret it. It’s nice to see Stuhlbarg get such a meaty lead role after years of scene-stealing supporting turns in movies like Call Me By Your Name, but Morgan’s fiery dialogue isn’t always a perfect match for the actor’s finely-tuned skills of observation and reaction. He starts yelling very early on in the play, and rarely stops for the rest of the nearly three-hour runtime, which makes for a monotonous performance.

It doesn’t help that the first act of Patriots is told non-chronologically, a choice made even more baffling by the fact that the second half has a clear, linear progression. This is the kind of historical narrative that should have a snowball effect, as a character’s personal choices slowly accumulate alongside socio-political shifts until it all builds toward an unstoppable sense of tragedy. Instead, the disjointed structure makes it hard for Stuhlbarg to build momentum in his performance, or for the audience to track the progression of cause and effect.

<p>Matthew Murphy</p>

Matthew Murphy

Will Keen, by contrast, strikes a nice balance between playing Putin as a comical buffoon elevated way above his station and a ruthless power-grabber who makes the most of the presidential office once he achieves it. Keen has been playing Putin since Patriots’ original run on the West End, which may explain why he seems more comfortable in the role than Stuhlbarg, who is stepping in for original star Tom Hollander.

Although Patriots is a dialogue-driven play, the highlight of this production is the creative stage design by Miriam Buether. By shifting around chairs and a dais, the stage alternately becomes an oligarch’s office, a dingy hospital room, and a TV network’s newsroom, among other locales. Director Rupert Goold also litters the proceedings with multimedia elements in an effective, energetic way. When Putin gives a speech on TV, for instance, Keen stands prominently on stage addressing the audience, while the screen version seen by the public is projected on the walls behind him.

But as flashy as Patriots’ visual storytelling can get, it doesn’t give the material the depth that Morgan is clearly striving for. Watching an early scene where Stuhlbarg juggles several different phone calls at once in his office, it’s hard not to think of Roy Cohn’s similarly-staged introduction from Angels in America. That’s not a comparison any playwright should want to invite lightly, especially since Morgan’s dialogue is not nearly as funny or memorable as Tony Kushner’s.

By limiting its action to a core cast of Berezovsky, Putin, fellow oligarch Roman Abramovich (Luke Thallon, also carrying over from the West End) and a few other power players, Patriots fails to convey a similar societal scale in its story. Stuhlbarg yells a lot about “saving Russia” and the plight of the common man, but it always falls flat since we don’t actually see any such characters. There's no sense of the historical context of the seismic shift that was the fall of the Soviet Union, no attempt at situating this drama on the timeline of the relentless march of history to give it further heft.

<p>Matthew Murphy</p> The cast of 'Patriots'

Matthew Murphy

The cast of 'Patriots'

Morgan is clearly an expert on Queen Elizabeth II: By the time he created The Crown for Netflix, he had already explored the times and travails of the late royal matriarch on both film (The Queen) and on stage (The Audience). But Patriots is his first work set in Russia, and it shows. There’s nothing inherently wrong with an artist tackling different subjects, but it’s not clear that the playwright actually understands the historical dynamic of his narrative.

Patriots often describes Russia as an alien land with immortal problems, but Putin didn’t become the country’s president (and force behind the current bloody war in Ukraine) solely because Berezovsky gave him a push behind the scenes at a crucial moment. Oligarchs seized upon the power vacuum left by Soviet dissolution in a rapacious fashion, gobbling up formerly public assets and charging ordinary Russians exorbitant prices for products they didn’t need and services they used to get for free. That is a bigger part of what made the country willing to accept an authoritarian leader who promised to bring predatory businessmen to heel. These facts are present in the script, but are ignored or scoffed at in favor of personal drama.

Slathering the production and its marketing with the communist hammer/sickle logo and red/yellow flag of the Soviet Union also indicates a failure of historical context. Why is such iconography relevant to a story whose most important action takes place after the fall of the Berlin Wall? For the last 30 years, the Russian flag has been red, white, and blue. Maybe that doesn’t seem scary or alien enough to Broadway audiences, but it’s the truth: Modern Russia’s problems stem not from differences with the capitalist economies of the United States and the United Kingdom, but from their similarities. But the play is more interested in perpetuating outdated iconography and othering Russia, rather than seeking meaning in its parallels to our own lives. C

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