Plays that make you think - or even plays that make you think they make you think - will always be in short supply, like caviar.
Sir Tom Stoppard's new play "Rock 'n' Roll" is funny, enthralling and, yes, it offers you something to take out of the theater you didn't come in with.
Just as "The Coast of Utopia" took as its canvas a portrait of the 19th century seen through the camera lens of a group of Russian intellectuals, Stoppard has now focused the same lens, the same dramatic process, on his own time. And it's now even more sharply focused.
The camera's eye is set on what might be thought the one virtually inexplicable event of the 20th century – that now hindsightedly inevitable collapse of communism. What went wrong? Or right?
Stoppard tries to explain it, while we listen to occasional blasts of rock 'n' roll - Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones, among others - which is less irrelevant than you might think.
Possibly because, while English-bred, he was Czech-born, Stoppard sets his play partly in Prague, starting in 1968 with that first Czech attempt "to give socialism a human face," which ended with invading Soviet tanks.
The play's other contrasting image of communism's implosion is set in Cambridge, England.
Here Stoppard places his "old white rhino," an unrepentent communist college professor, Max (Brian Cox); his wife, Eleanor, and daughter Esme (both played at different points in time by Sinead Cusack).
There is also Max's Cambridge protégé, Jan (Rufus Sewell), a Czech doctoral student and devout communist, but one obsessed with rock music. During that Prague Spring of 1968, Jan returns home, only to find himself slowly pushed into reluctant dissidence.
Stoppard being Stoppard also introduces counter-themes based on the Pink Floyd's legendary Syd Barrett, Sapphic poetry, journalistic truth and perceptive objectivity. It all works quite merrily because his people are people.
And then there's the rock 'n' roll. Stoppard understands that this was the first demotic music, that knew no class, ethnic or national boundaries - at least in the Caucasian world.
It didn't bring down communism, but as anyone who traveled anywhere behind the Iron Curtain must have realized, the pure energy of rock, that "socially negative music," became in Russia and all the Warsaw Pact nations the absolute metaphor for the intellectual and emotional freedom that communism denied.
Stoppard here not only uses rock music as time-frame interludes, but also introduces, as a sidebar, the story of a real Czech rock band, the Plastic People of the Universe, whose drop-out attitudes enraged (and frightened) the communist authorities.
The director Trevor Nunn is a wizard - as he showed in his premieres of "Arcadia" and "The Coast of Utopia" trilogy, both with Britain's National Theatre - at revealing the human face of Stoppard behind all the nervy, nervous brilliance.
And - a lot of any directorial success comes with the casting - he has here a marvelous team of actors, the four leads from his original London production last year, with all the newcomers blending in with the effortless Wilde-like grace that characterizes Stoppard's writing.
Rufus Sewell's Jan is masterly in its complex understatement of ambiguity and decency - he doesn't just inhabit this role, he lives it from 1968 until 1990, ticking off the years with meticulous truth.
Brian Cox, as the blustering professor Max, his communist faith unshattered by either Stalin's purges or Brezhnev's tanks, shows a developingly uncertain certainty, until quietly he hands in his party card, and subsides into tetchy domesticity.
Sinead Cusack first as Max's wife, herself an academic of Hellenic studies, gamely battling the ravages of cancer, and then, as her own aging flower-child daughter, explores every nuance, and is cleverly balanced by Alice Eve, that same peacenik when young and later as the intellectual grandaughter.
Some will assume that this is a difficult play, some without really listening to it. But really it's a soap opera marketing very cleansing soap - and after all, as they say, it's only rock 'n' roll.
Get out your handkerchiefs, if you please, for “Rock ’n’ Roll,” the triumphantly sentimental new play by Tom Stoppard.
Wait a minute. That sentence does not compute. The words “Tom Stoppard” and “sentimental” in intimate proximity? Mr. Stoppard is the intellectual magician who turns academic pursuits like philology, etymology and ontology into quicksilver theater. People don’t cry at his plays; they ponder.
Yet anyone who looked hard enough could always see the fragile, hopeful heart beneath the cerebral glitter in Mr. Stoppard’s work during the past 40 years, from “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” (1967) to “The Coast of Utopia” (produced on Broadway last year). Now, for theatergoers who find looking hard to be a strain, there is “Rock ’n’ Roll,” which opened last night at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater under the direction of Trevor Nunn. This is a play in which the heart of the matter is the human heart.
Mr. Stoppard might prefer to say that his passionately acted, decades-spanning tale of love, revolution and loud music, set in Prague and Cambridge, England, is about the mind. But that’s mind as distinct from brain, a crucial difference in “Rock ’n’ Roll.”
The brain is merely an organism, trapped in a decaying body. The mind is unconfined and, as embodied by a host of insistently individual characters, it roams through phenomena as different as the poetry of Sappho and the songs of Pink Floyd. This being a work by Mr. Stoppard, the mind expresses itself in many, often polysyllabic words. But its presence is perhaps most purely felt in the electrically amplified songs that throb throughout the show.
Writing about the political and cultural legacy of the late 1960s in his own late 60s (Mr. Stoppard recently turned 70) has, for better or worse, exposed this playwright’s soft side — mostly for better. Mr. Stoppard treats the contentious, confused characters of “Rock ’n’ Roll” with a deep, protective affection I’ve never encountered from him before, even in the supposed self-portraiture of his “Real Thing.” If this sentimental streak leads him finally into a Shakespearean pairing off of lovers that doesn’t entirely track, well, it’s because he so loves his hard-lived characters.
At the play’s center is Jan (Rufus Sewell), a Czech university student and a man who the Czech-born, English-educated Mr. Stoppard has said is a might-have-been alter ego: the self he might have been had he returned to live in his homeland. A protégé of Max (Brian Cox), a growling lion of a professor at Cambridge, Jan leaves England for Prague when the city is occupied by Soviet tanks in 1968. His motives, he says, are to save 1) his mother and 2) socialism.
Still, his greatest love lies in the grooved vinyl of the only possessions he takes with him: a collection of records by groups like the Rolling Stones, the Velvet Underground, the Fugs and especially Pink Floyd. And while his socially conscious contemporaries protest governmental tyranny and censorship, what gets Jan in trouble is his attachment to a (real) Czech rock band, the Plastic People of the Universe.
“Rock ’n’ Roll” isn’t a story of just one person’s passion, but of the many contradictory forms that passion takes in different people, from Max’s uncompromising embrace of old-school communism to the deep love of his wife, Eleanor (Sinead Cusack), for the classical Greek poetry she teaches.
As the play moves from 1968 to 1990 in quick vignettes — interspersed by blasts of British, American and, yes, Czech rock oldies, with recording credits projected on a drop — its characters’ worldviews inevitably collide, sparking harsh arguments and ambiguous acts of betrayal among people who love one another. (The nifty, time-traveling set is, as in the play’s London run, by Robert Jones.) The show is rife with instances of mutual understanding, small and large, that form a shifting pattern of pain and forgiveness.
For “Rock ’n’ Roll” is no clear-cut debate play. The men and women who inhabit it can’t be boiled down to single, consistent positions, though that would make life much simpler for them. As in “Utopia,” Mr. Stoppard’s trilogy about the intellectual roots of the Russian revolution, the waywardness of life and of human nature keeps subverting doctrinaire systems of thought, whether their symbols be a hammer and sickle or a peace sign.
I was in unconditional thrall to “Rock ’n’ Roll” when I saw it in at the cozy Royal Court Theater in London last year. (It subsequently transferred to a larger West End theater.) Hearing of its planned move to Broadway, I worried about its getting lost in a big house in a big country where audiences are less likely to be familiar with the political phenomena under discussion.
As this production began, I worried that the performances seemed bigger and louder than I remembered them, as if the London stars had been instructed to “act down” for subtlety-deaf Americans. Mr. Cox, in particular, is initially pitched at an unvarying roar.
Soon, though, the rhythms of Mr. Nunn’s swift-footed staging had me hooked again. So did Mr. Sewell’s portrayal of a hopeful, smart young man who, though aged prematurely by a punishing totalitarian regime, holds on to the essence of what he always was. In the second act, when Jan returns to Cambridge in 1990, Mr. Sewell’s performance becomes that rare thing in acting: a palimpsest in which you see all the layers of a single life.
Ms. Cusack — who plays the cancer-riddled Eleanor in the first act and her grown daughter, Esme, in the second — is marvelous as two different women of feeling holding their own among men of ideas. Her bravura presentation of Eleanor’s argument against Max’s materialism in the first act is the emotional touchstone of the play. “I am not my body,” says Eleanor, who has been subjected to numerous surgeries and excisions. “My body is nothing without me.”
The supporting cast includes two other, excellent holdovers from the London production: Alice Eve as the younger Esme and, later, Esme’s teenage daughter, Alice; and Nicole Ansari as an émigré Czech Cambridge professor with a mystical side. I also enjoyed the newcomers Brian Avers, Stephen Kunken and Quentin Maré as youngish men of assorted politics.
Oh, I should mention another male character who shows up only briefly but whose spirit imbues the whole play. That’s the Piper (played by Seth Fisher), who is probably Syd Barrett, the musician and former Pink Floyd member, who here becomes the avatar of Pan, the sylvan god of revelry and life at its most irrepressible.
Mr. Barrett died shortly after “Rock ’n’ Roll” opened in London last year. So it feels particularly poignant when, in the concluding scene, characters translating some Plutarch reiterate the words “Pan is dead.” On the evidence of “Rock ’n’ Roll” I’d say that — gods be praised — Pan is very much alive.
Midway through "Rock 'n' Roll," Jan, the reluctant dissident at the heart of Tom Stoppard's new play, says, "There are no stories in Czechoslovakia. We have an arrangement with ourselves not to disturb the appearances. We aim for inertia. We mass-produce banality. We've had no history since '68, only pseudo-history." Having left his native Czechoslovakia in diapers when his parents fled the Nazis in 1938, Stoppard now imagines how his return might have gone. In this unwieldy reflection on politics, poetics, rock music as expression of personal liberty and a whole lot else, the playwright creates his own pseudo-history by sending Jan back from cozy Cambridge to face Soviet occupation in Prague.
The rock 'n' roll-loving prodigal's dissident status is earned less by activism than by belief in the power of outsider music -- notably Czech band the Plastic People of the Universe, whose underground appearances sparked police violence and a ban on performing. Unlike some of his more hardline friends, Jan resists the politicization of his beliefs, convinced he can exist peacefully within the system of state control. But he gradually gets chewed up and spat out by it.
That 20-year process -- spanning the Prague Spring of 1968 through the Velvet Revolution and fall of old-school communism two decades later -- is charted in the meticulously calibrated changes in actor Rufus Sewell's countenance, in his bearing and in his eyes, leaving him a man in many ways diminished yet still able to be amazed and amused by life's ironies.
Among Stoppard's sweeter romantic indulgences is the fact that one of those ironies is a late-in-life love with a semi-lost woman whom Jan remembers as a stoned hippie with a crush on him.
Would that the intellectually overburdened play's journey -- or those of its mostly unengaging characters -- had half the humanity packed into Sewell's wonderful performance. "Rock 'n' Roll" commands admiration simply by virtue of being unafraid to make demands on its audience, and it has an affecting central figure in Jan. But in order to get to 90 minutes of reasonably satisfying emotional drama, it first force-feeds you another 90 minutes of stodgy political-science backgrounding, made more cumbersome by awkward cross-cutting between Cambridge and Prague. (The latter aspect is not helped by Robert Jones' clunky set, with its pedestrian use of a central turntable.)
Jan is introduced in 1968 as a young political scholar compelled by the Soviet invasion to return to his native Prague. His irascible British professor, Max (Brian Cox), is a diehard Marxist who dismisses Jan's support for Communist reformer Alexander Dubcek as misguided. Both Max's belief in a collective socialist system and Jan's in individual freedom are steadily eroded by disillusionment as the play follows its lumpy progression.
There's some overlap here with Stoppard's last work, "The Coast of Utopia," a nine-hour trilogy both more sprawling and more fluid that also concerned the failure of idealism. But "Rock 'n' Roll" is less melancholy; it considers the way we think, feel, grieve and believe, using music as the central, overstretching metaphor for revolution, protest, liberation and emotional survival.
The first act is an unrewarding slog. Director Trevor Nunn pushes the actors toward emphatic heavyhandedness, particularly Cox's Max, an overdetermined character who's all bullying bluster, and Sinead Cusack as his wife Eleanor. A classics professor slowly succumbing to cancer, Eleanor provides one of the play's more obvious metaphors for decay, while her Sappho tutorials on Eros as an uncontrollable spirit present further opposition to Max's intransigence.
But Stoppard provides no impetus to care about these characters, who serve merely to articulate various points on the political, ideological and philosophical spectrum without ever coming alive as people. Despite this clearly being a personal work about the playwright's own deep interests, it's an oddly ungiving one for much of its running time. The second act, in which Cusack steps into the role of Eleanor's grown daughter Esme, moves away from the political debate forum and into more emotional territory.
As the action shifts back to Cambridge through much of the 1980s, Stoppard's observations of Thatcher's Britain -- "a democracy of obedience" -- acquire more of an incisive sting than the familiar depictions of restricted freedom, overbearing government control, treachery and betrayal in Eastern Europe.
Marooned between combative father Max and headstrong daughter Alice (Alice Eve) but in most respects discarded, Esme becomes a poignant figure and gives Cusack some belated texture to play.
But the most consistent involvement comes via Jan. Presenting a touchingly arrhythmic figure despite a lifetime of passionate immersion in music, and balancing his intelligence with a disarming hint of social awkwardness, Sewell deftly shapes the character's path from passivity through persecution to rehabilitation and unexpected, somewhat whimsical deliverance.
Jan embodies the bittersweet view of rock 'n' roll as a language of underground political protest whose once-trenchant social significance has given way to meaningless commercialization, though its liberating power somehow endures.
Stoppard and Nunn punctuate the 20-year chronicle with an iconic soundtrack to illustrate that rock transcends politics, dipping into the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd (drug-addicted founding member Syd Barrett serves as another breakdown metaphor), the Grateful Dead and the Beach Boys, and on through U2 and the Cure. But despite moments of lingering feeling in the second act and a generous sprinkling of the witty instant aphorisms audiences have come to expect from Stoppard, overall the words don't summon the same power as the music.