'Patriots' review: What happened to the man who made Putin?

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'Patriots' review: What happened to the man who made Putin?
Will Keen, left, as Vladimir Putin and Michael Stuhlbarg as Boris Berezovsky in Peter Morgan’s “Patriots,” at the Ethel Barrymore Theater in Manhattan, March 30, 2024. Stuhlbarg and Keen shine as a kingmaker and his creature — but in Peter Morgan’s cheesy-fun play, it’s not always clear which is which. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

by Jesse Green

NEW YORK, NY.- “In the West, you have no idea.”

So begins Peter Morgan’s play “Patriots,” which opened Monday at the Ethel Barrymore Theater. The line is spoken by Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky, referring to the foods, sights and music that supposedly feed the great Russian soul. These are represented, in Rupert Goold’s entertaining if overcaffeinated production, by boozy singing and balalaikas, sometimes even fur hats.

But “Patriots” also sets out to demonstrate how little the West knows about the real world of realpolitik: the grudges, enmities and insulted dignities that in the post-Soviet 1990s, with casino capitalism rampant in Russia, created Vladimir Putin.

If you could ask Berezovsky, though, he’d tell you it was he who created Putin, a 10th-rate provincial nobody he eased into power, first as prime minister and later as president. Berezovsky (Michael Stuhlbarg) calls himself Putin’s “krysha” — literally his roof, figuratively his protector or, as he explains, the “bully on your side.”

Spoken in the weirdly accented English of this production, which originated in London and has been remounted for Broadway with key cast changes and Netflix as a producer, “krysha” sounds confusingly like “creature.” It turns out to be a useful confusion. “Patriots” is a wild story of makers switching places with the made, of Pinocchios devouring Geppettos.

Putin (Will Keen) was and is both: a liar and a manipulator. Berezovsky was at least the latter — but, well, in the West, we have no idea. We meet him in “Patriots” as a 9-year-old math prodigy, an obnoxious “golden child” fixated on winning a Nobel Prize. (That there is no Nobel in mathematics is one of Morgan’s many shortcuts.) The boy’s interests, at least as selected for ironic reference later, are in the predictability of decision-making, under rational and even irrational circumstances.

Both come into play. Through rational choices, the know-it-all becomes a billionaire, ruthlessly plotting to expand his business from cars to television to oil. When his attempts to grease the seemingly ungreasable Putin with money and a Mercedes fail, he switches to peddling power, which works. The chaos of the presidency of Boris Yeltsin — in Paul Kynman’s hilarious performance, a pickled parade balloon — creates massive opportunities for grift and privatization that Berezovsky, with Putin in his pocket, is primed to exploit.

The scenes in which he creates his creature — and bleeds everyone else with a combination of charm, petulance and ruthlessness — are great fun. Both lead actors are superb, bringing physical, gestural and thus emotional life to characters who might seem, from the outside, to have no insides worth exploring. Stuhlbarg has rounded himself into a big baby, complete with balled fists, squeezed eyes and tantrums. Keen, from the London production, uses a pinched voice to suggest Putin’s pinched soul. Wooden stances become turkeylike preening as he grows uncomfortably comfortable with power.

That power turns on Berezovsky the minute Putin becomes president. For the rest of the play, as for the rest of his life, Berezovsky plots to bring down the man he made and, for the sake of the motherland, his government as well.

Morgan does not offer a strong point of view on whether Berezovsky was truly patriotic or just infuriated by the wounds to his narcissism and bank account. But after Roman Abramovich, another of his creatures, turns on him too, the on-the-skids oligarch loses his grip on the rationality of decision-making. He dies, a probable suicide, in exile.

That’s no spoiler; it’s the news, dateline London, 2013. But I wouldn’t generally take “Patriots” as a reliable source of information. (The math is mostly mumbo-jumbo.) Like Morgan’s “The Crown,” it’s a bit cheesy, making its sometimes baggy drama (it could reasonably have been half or twice as long) from a highly tendentious selection of facts and a perhaps overliberal imagination.

In so doing, it provides, also like “The Crown,” the opportunity for some very enjoyable performances, not just from Stuhlbarg and Keen but from Luke Thallon as an implausibly beamish Abramovich. Just don’t look for interesting women here; they are mostly afterthoughts, arm candy and Bechdel test flunk-outs.

But then “Patriots” is no better a source for moral news than the other kind. Perhaps no play is. Here, though, Putin is given way more than his due: glamorized as a shy, upstanding mayor corrupted by Berezovsky and his plutocratic ilk. Whereas Berezovsky, who did, after all, try to bring Putin down, is left in the gutter, with a certain amount of dramaturgical glee. Goold stages his downfall like a rock opera, with strobes, bursts of loud noise (these are often assassination attempts) and weird dancers.

If not moral clarity, then, “Patriots” at least offers a lesson: There are moments when tyrants are still tyros, when Putins are nobodies — and evil can be redirected or sidelined. Wait too long and you could lose your chance.

That’s something, “Patriots” suggests, about which the West can no longer afford to “have no idea.”


Through June 23 at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, Manhattan; patriotsbroadway.com. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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