Review: ‘Patriots’ on Broadway is a gripping, juicy drama about Vladimir Putin

NEW YORK — As fans of “The Crown” know well, the British writer Peter Morgan is singularly adept at explaining how the most basic human emotions — pride, pique, greed, sexual need, raging insecurity — impact magnitudinous global events. In “Patriots,” Morgan’s newest Broadway play, he turns his attention to the Kremlin and the rise, with no fall yet in sight, of the obscure deputy mayor turned one of the world’s most ruthless despots: Vladimir Putin.

“Patriots,” a gripping, juicy drama replete with a terrifying performance from Will Keen as a Richard III-like you-know-who, offers up a potted history of Russia from the 1990s, the era of bumbling Boris Yeltsin, to the present. Its central dramatic question? How did Putin happen?

The answer there, Morgan suggests, is inextricably linked to the rise of Russian oligarchs, the hyper-wealthy Russians who seized on the fall of communism for their own epic material gain, snapping up former state assets like utilities and television stations and spending the windfalls on megayachts, cruising the Mediterranean with impunity. Such was their power, “Patriots” implies, they came to believe that they also could control the Kremlin, especially if they installed one of their own to do their bidding. Like dumb old Vlad, a reliable apparatchik who could be trusted to do their bidding.

Alas for businessmen like Boris Berezovsky (Michael Stuhlbarg), the storyteller here, puttering Putin went rogue.

The oligarchs failed to see the old Soviet ways and the state apparatus of murder, overt and covert, was still in place. All manner of hell rained down upon their heads, which many of them soon found severed from their bodies, metaphorically speaking, to the extent Putin traffics in metaphors. A few of the smart ones recalibrated with the new big dog: notably, here, Roman Abramovich (Luke Thallon), a name notoriously familiar to the British public, at least, because he once owned the Chelsea football club.

That’s the triangular conflict of the play: Berezovsky, who died in Britain in suspicious circumstances in 2013, helps both Putin and Abramovich, only to be twice stabbed in the back. What’s especially distinctive, though, about this play is that the most sympathetic figure therein, Berezovsky, really is not all that sympathetic at all. He is, after all, an oligarch and a mathematician who simply miscalculated. And in so doing, he unleashed upon the world a murderous dictator who sent tanks rolling into Ukraine.

Stuhlbarg is a loquacious, slightly goofy actor and that fits Morgan’s conception of the character like a fur-lined glove as he leans away from his professorial mentor (played by Ronald Guttman) as the thrill of money and power takes over his body and soul. In this play, this smart man comes off as making one of the great misjudgments of the modern political era and Morgan clearly was fascinated by the how and the why.

Audiences likely will share that interest, thanks to a lively production from director Rupert Goold that prevents any of this from becoming too dry, and a uniformly excellent ensemble cast that includes Stella Baker as Marina Litvinenko and Alex Hurt as her husband Alexander, the Russian dissident who coined the term “Mafia state” and who was poisoned in London in 2006. On his deathbed, he blamed Putin.

“Patriots” has the sweep of a Shakespearean history play and many of the same points of conflict. But Goold, long fond of a certain trashy beauty in the theater, leavens those tendencies and adds Broadway pizzazz.

Morgan’s characters explain themselves at times like they are walking Wikipedia entries and, as with “The Crown,” these histories always run the risk of making people think they are watching historical fact, not a dramatic rendition with imagined dialogue. But very few people know the Putin backstory and, as such, “Patriots” is a helpful, cautionary tale of unintended consequence.

There were plenty of Russians at the theater the night I saw the show. I watched an usher shout at one who was blocking an aisle. He shot her a look.


At the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St., New York;