Patriots: Absolute Power

Peter Morgan has written any number of excellent plays, movies and TV series about world leaders, from Richard Nixon to Idi Amin to Queen Elizabeth II. But Patriots, his latest piece directed by Rupert Goold and running through June 23 the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, does not carry the same weight as Frost/Nixon, The Last King of Scotland or The Audience (or The Queen, or The Crown for that matter).

It’s not that the story doesn’t have grand ambitions, but Patriots does not quite reach its goals. The play follows Boris Berezovsky, a former mathematician whose love of numbers makes him a successful businessman. While he speaks lovingly of Russia and what he hopes his homeland can be, Berezovsky focuses first and foremost on his own wealth, status and power. After he puts in a good word for an ambitious politician named Vladimir Putin, his life spins out of control and everything he has built for himself comes crashing down.

It’s the kind of tragedy worthy of a great epic, but Morgan races through so much history that the characters never fully develop and it is hard to appreciate what Berezovsky accomplished—and what he lost. After all, in order to appreciate the tale of a kingmaker we need to see a king being made. Putin’s rise to power takes only a few moments, so it barely seems like a great feat. And since we only ever see Berezovsky abuse his power, it does not matter much when he loses it. The play presents Berezovsky as an intelligent problem-solver, but we only ever see him make more trouble than he can get anyone out of, least of all himself.

If Morgan’s script is somewhat lacking, the performances are strong. Michael Stuhlbarg is appropriately blustery as Berezovsky, and his despair as his world unravels are probably the only real emotional moments in the play. Will Keen is chilling as the Russian dictator, stiff and awkward and coldly monstrous as he secures his authority by any and every means necessary.  Luke Thallon is a balance between the two as an up-and-coming politico with charm to match Berezovsky’s and guile to match Putin’s.

Paul Kynman provides much-needed comic relief as a boozy Boris Yeltsin, and Alex Hurt is truly poignant as a security officer who always tries to do the right thing in a horrifyingly corrupt world. Hurt makes Alexander Litvinenko one of the most tragic figures in the play: He seems to be the only one who genuinely wants to help anybody other than himself. 

Goold’s direction keeps the energy up but does not do much to flesh the characters out. Miriam Buether designed both the sets and co-created the costumes with Deborah Andrews. The former are colorfully efficient while the latter are less eye-catching. Jack Knowles’ moody lights convey a range of locations and moods, from the brutal fluorescents of an office building to the sun of a Caribbean beach to the neon of a post-Soviet bar. 

Morgan is adept at creating unique takes on leaders and leadership and turning famous figures into compelling characters. Patriots may not live up to his previous works, but it is a fascinating take on power, corruption and ego—and how dangerous the three can be when combined. 

Jena Tesse Fox
Jena Tesse Fox has been writing about theater for more than a decade. Her reviews and articles have appeared on, and She also hosts the Spotlight podcast on

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