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“Patriots” reviewed

You can’t blame Peter Morgan for wanting to move on from the British royal family. After all, he’s exhaustively dramatized their peccadilloes for years in such acclaimed works as The Queen and the Netflix series The Crown, and there’s only so many times you can go back to the Queen Elizabeth well, as deep as it is. So it’s not surprising that he’s moved on to more diabolical and murderous real-life intrigue with his new play dramatizing the rise of Vladimir Putin thanks to the Russian oligarchs who put him into power only to discover that they’ve created a monster. Featuring brilliant performances by Michael Stuhlbarg as Russian-Jewish businessman Boris Berezovsky and Will Keen, repeating his Olivier Award-winning London performance, as Putin, Patriots is the sort of gripping real-life drama that only makes you want to learn more.

The playwright’s gift for making recent history come alive are on ample display in this work that originated in 2022 at London’s Almeida Theatre. Early in the play, we see the first fateful meeting between Berezovsky, a child math prodigy who amassed a fortune in various businesses, and Putin, then the deputy mayor of St. Petersburg. Berezovsky asks him for help in smoothing the way for a car dealership in a prized area of the city, and makes it clear that he’s more than willing to compensate him for the favor. Putin rebuffs the offer of a new car, sternly declaring that he doesn’t accept bribes.

“C’mon, are you even Russian?” an uncomprehending Berezovsky teases.

Not long afterward, Berezovsky, who is almost killed in an assassination attempt, meets Alexander Litvinenko (Alex Hurt), a lieutenant colonel in the Anti-Organized Crime Unit, and tries to lure him into working for him as his personal security head. Berezovsky’s canny seductiveness becomes illustrated when he sends a fawning note to Litvinenko’s wife Marina (Stella Baker), a ballroom dancing teacher, who tries but fails to convince her husband to take the job. It’s only when his superiors order him to murder Berezovsky that the upright Litvinenko resigns and goes to work for the businessman, a decision that would ultimately have fatal consequences.

When it comes time for a faltering Boris Yeltsin (Paul Kynman) to step down from the presidency, Berezovsky personally selects Putin, whose political career he had since promoted, as his successor, assuming that he can be easily controlled. Needless to say, things don’t go quite as planned, with Putin, who at first professed a desire to liberalize the country, quickly transforming into a brutally autocratic leader who turns on the very oligarchs who help put him into power, especially the one who was most responsible.

Because most of its characters and situations are less familiar than the events dramatized in Morgan’s previous works, Patriots proves somewhat less accessible. The playwright also throws a bit too much into the mix, such as the flashback scenes featuring Berezovsky’s interactions with his former professor (Ronald Guttman) in which they engage in intellectual discussions about topics ranging from mathematical theories to Russian society, and his complicated relationship with Roman Abramovich (Luke Thallon, excellent), a young oil company owner with whom he begins a shady business relationship that ultimately leads to a crushing defeat.

But throughout the play’s lengthy running time, Morgan delivers the sort of brilliantly observed characterizations at which he excels. In Stuhlbarg’s wildly entertaining, outsized performance, Berezovsky emerges a man who deeply loves both his country and his extravagant lifestyle, complete with nubile young girlfriends and Caribbean fishing vacations. He becomes deeply outraged by his protégé’s betrayal, not only on personal terms but also because he sees that Putin is taking his country back to the past.

Keen is absolutely chilling as the reptilian Putin, brilliantly using body language to convey the former KGB officer’s metamorphosis from mild-mannered bureaucrat to murdering dictator, along the way carefully practicing how to present himself while looking in a mirror. Early in the play, when Putin professes a desire to leave his security past behind and enter the world of politics, Berezovsky comments, “You no longer wish to police people. You wish to set them free.” Keen merely shrugs uncomprehendingly, the gesture speaking volumes.

Rupert Gould’s kinetic direction prevents the work from succumbing to the relentlessly dense dialogue, providing a vivid theatricality enhanced by Miriam Buether’s versatile set design dominated by the sort of impossibly long table at which Putin famously conducts his meetings, Jack Knowles’ piercing lighting, and Adam Cork’s frequently startling sound design and score (be prepared for some very loud explosions).

There are times when Patriots feels unwieldly, throwing so much at the audience that it feels an effort to keep up. But by the end it fully justifies its ambitions, bringing events of which most of us are only tangentially aware into deeper focus. The play may be complicated, but so is the world.