- The Washington Times - Friday, February 23, 2007

NEW YORK — David Harbour is one lucky actor. In the prestigious “The Coast of Utopia” trilogy, he landed more than one role — he has three.

The only snag: None lasts very long.

In the first play, Mr. Harbour has just a few scenes as philosopher Nicholas Stankevich, doomed to die young. In the second, as German poet George Herwegh, he slinks away long before the end. In the third, Mr. Harbour has only one small scene.

That means a lot of hours backstage.

What does he do to pass the time?

“There’s a pretty healthy poker game,” he says with a smile.

“Oh, very extensive,” agrees Richard Easton, another cast member who has three parts in Tom Stoppard’s sweeping look at 19th-century Russian intellectuals.

It turns out that virtually anytime backstage at Lincoln Center, a hard-core group of five or six card sharks, some still in costume, have settled down into plastic seats in a kitchen to try to relieve the others of their cash.

Mr. Harbour and Billy Crudup are two regulars. “He owes me a lot of money,” Mr. Harbour says of his co-star. Mr. Easton, so far, has kept his distance. “We’re trying to get him involved, but he’s very cautious with his money,” Mr. Harbour says.

Poker and Pushkin: Welcome to repertory theater on Broadway, Stoppard-style.

The card games are just one way the 41 actors and army of crew members whittle away their downtime during one of the city’s biggest theatrical productions in recent history.

The trilogy, which spans 35 years and logs in at about nine total stage hours, contains more than 70 roles. It has required a nine-month commitment from some very sought-after actors, including Mr. Crudup, Martha Plimpton, John Hamilton, Amy Irving and Ethan Hawke.

Because all three plays — “Voyage,” “Shipwreck” and “Salvage” — are in constant rotation, rehearsal and tech periods often run from noon to 5 p.m., and then everyone must return to perform three hours later.

“It’s like being on an offshore oil rig with my family stationed on a boat two leagues away and I have a rowboat to get to them,” says Jennifer Ehle, a new mother who also has three roles.

It promises to get even tougher when the cast and crew undertake all three plays in back-to-back-to-back marathons tonight and on March 3, 10, 24 and 31; April 7, 21 and 28; and May 5.

The sheer complexity of all the show’s moving parts is made clear midway through an afternoon interview with Mr. Easton, Mr. Harbour and Miss Ehle in Mr. Easton’s tidy dressing room.

Because he’s not needed, Mr. Easton has about an hour to kill until the end of the play. So what does the 79-year-old actor typically do while dead? He reads old detective novels or does crossword puzzles.

“Occasionally, people come in and talk to me, try to cheer me up,” he says, laughing.

Unlike Mr. Harbour, Miss Ehle and Mr. Easton, a few of their co-stars — Jason Butler Harner as Ivan Turgenev, Mr. Hawke as Michael Bakunin, and Brian F. O’Byrne as Alexander Herzen — keep their characters for the entire three-play run.

But don’t call those guys fortunate.

“I don’t think they’re lucky,” says Mr. Easton, who portrays Bakunin’s father in the first play, a Russian diplomat in the second and a Polish nobleman in the third. “We’re lucky.”

“Absolutely,” says Miss Ehle, who plays, in succession, a sister of Bakunin, the wife of Herzen and then the governess of Herzen’s children.

The three actors insist that even though there’s much dense material and some of it overlaps in time and subject, they never get confused about which play they’re doing.

“A performance is a floppy disk. You put it in, and it happens, basically,” Mr. Easton says. “So once you get the disk in, you’re safe. But until you get it in, it can be tough.”

Mr. Harbour says that doing all three plays helps his overall performance. Each part, he says, strengthens the others, even if they’re different roles.

Not surprisingly, each actor’s favorite play depends on which role he or she is playing. “They kind of go back and forth,” Mr. Harbour says. “I imagine what it’s like when you have a couple of kids: You like one one day and the other the next day.”

To get into character, each actor did his or her own research. Mr. O’Byrne and Mr. Crudup read a lot of Turgenev and Herzen. Miss Ehle read “The Romantic Exiles” by E.H. Carr. Mr. O’Byrne and other cast members even undertook a field trip to Russia.

Mr. Harbour went back to other Stoppard plays, trying to understand the mind of the playwright. Of course, anyone can ask the man himself, who has attended virtually every performance.

Does Mr. Stoppard pipe up?

“Pipe up?” Mr. Easton answers, laughing. “No, he’s not shy.”

Mr. Easton, Miss Ehle and Mr. Harbour have all worked on Stoppard plays before. Mr. Easton and Mr. Harbour were in “The Invention of Love,” which earned Mr. Easton a 2001 Tony Award, and Miss Ehle won a Tony in 2000 for Mr. Stoppard’s “The Real Thing.”

“He’s very funny and down to earth,” Mr. Harbour says. “He really is just a guy like any of us and is as ordinarily interested in how bad the coffee is here as anyone else.”

With salaries relatively low in comparison to those for TV or movie work, it’s definitely a labor of love. Perhaps that’s why the backstage poker games are so important.

“There’s just a lot of great energy going on during the shows,” Mr. Harbour says.

Nevertheless, with long days and then nights that can stretch to 11 p.m. — and just two days and two nights off a week — doesn’t it all get a bit draining?

“Who needs a day off?” Mr. Easton asks.

“What else are we going to do?” Mr. Harbour asks, smiling.

“We’d only get into trouble,” Mr. Easton agrees.

“There’s nothing that I’d rather be doing,” Mr. Harbour declares. “It’s really the most fun part of my day.”

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