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May 2, 2024
The Kingmaker
Photo by Matthew Murphy

Fans of “The Crown” written by Peter Morgan may flock to see “Patriots,” his new Broadway play but they will discover a very different historical drama. However, the trip is worth it to see the terrific performance by Michael Stuhlbarg as Boris Berezovsky, a Russian oligarch. Using current events, Morgan has turned to Russia for inspiration for his characters. He has fleshed out a character that really was bigger than life. By himself, Berezovsky is an intriguing character but when pitted against Vladimir Putin, he becomes even more fascinating.

Berezovsky was a self-made billionaire who advised and manipulated President Boris Yelstin and his daughter, and in Morgan’s script, he proposed Putin to be Yeltsin’s successor. In an unexpected reversal, Putin (Will Keen ) refused to take orders from him. Keen, who won the Olivier for this role, exemplified the stuffy, stodgy Putin. He is stiff, cold, and never smiling, in contrast to Berezovsky, but he is just as dangerous.

Berezovsky was also a mathematical prodigy and several short scenes interspersed with the political machinations have him meeting with his tutor, Professor Perelman (played by Ronald Guttman.) However, each time they meet, the story changes direction, slowing down and often lagging.

Berezovsky is also a master juggler - business, politics, relationships. The first scenes show him answering several phones at the same time. Today he would be labeled an ‘influencer,’ and although later Putin says business has no place in politics, Berezovsky demonstrates that the oligarchs and wealthy businessmen have a great deal of control. Seeing himself as a ‘kingmaker,’ Berezovsky recommends Putin as Yeltsin’s successor, assuming that he could be controlled to do what he was told because as a former 16 year KGB man, he’s used to following orders.

The Tony nominations are out and Michael Stuhlbarg has rightly earned a nomination for his performance. Using broad hand motions, he gesticulates wildly, talking up a lot of room. Though not tall, he suggests a larger presence. Often smiling, even when the message is less than pleasant, he is always in control and appearing to be genial, like the snake waiting to pounce.

Stuhlbarg evinces supreme confidence with big, broad smiles, knowing he has the upper hand. Later when Berezovsky is forced into exile and seeks asylum in England, he continues to fight, even taking a former Russian business friend and associate to British court.

Through it all, Berezovsky is not likable; he’s somewhat ingratiating and must be a wonderful character to portray. Envision him as a Shakespearean character who meets his downfall due to his own hubris. However, the audience still doesn’t want anything to happen to him. Certainly not, at the hands of Putin, who has few redeeming personality traits.

Director Rupert Goold moved with the show from London where it garnered several awards. Although the lead has changed, several of the original performers, including Keen and Luke Thallon, transferred with it. The staging is unique and makes good use of screens to issue news about bombings and political turmoil. We see newscasters and at one point, the FSB boss gives instructions to one of his security men. (shades of Big Brother.)

Some of the criticism of “The Crown” has been that Morgan took creative license in creating the series. I had that in mind as I watched the show, wondering how much was fact and how much fiction. Somewhere lies the truth.

When years later in London, Berezovsky is found hanging. The verdict is suicide. Yet we wonder - Was it suicide or murder? For the sake of drama, we tend to blame the Russian secret service. After all, it makes for better theater.

Barrymore Theatre
243 West 47 St.
New York, NY

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Written by: Elyse Trevers
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