By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 5, 2007
NEW YORK -- A word of advice to anyone dipping a toe into the exhilarating whirlpool of Tom Stoppard's remarkable new "Rock 'n' Roll": Don't worry if the first act feels at times as if you've signed up for swimming lessons and begun in water over your head.
Your close attention and forbearance will be more than amply rewarded -- and your comprehension correspondingly enriched -- after you've returned for Act 2 in the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, where this impassioned contemplation of rock, revolution and the end of communism opened last night.
The playwright does take his own sweet time laying down the rhetorical and emotional underpinnings of this three-hour drama, set over a span of 22 years in the boisterous salon of a dyed-in-the-wool Marxist don in Cambridge and the cluttered Prague flat of a Rolling Stones-worshiping Czech intellectual.
Stoppard's buoyant imagination is invigorated here by tributaries of ideas about politics and art that flow into rivers of wisdom about the nature of revolution and the human craving for free expression. It is principally, however, through the moving struggle of one person, the Czech academic -- played with endearing reserve by the captivating Rufus Sewell -- that the dramatist gives "Rock 'n' Roll" its fiercely beating heart.
Sewell's Jan, compelled by the liberating spirit of rock music to embrace the dissident's life in Soviet-dominated Czechoslovakia, is matched in the power of subtle persuasion here by Sinead Cusack, portraying the dying wife and, later, the grown daughter of an English communist. With a bluster leavened by lacerating wit, Brian Cox's Max is a highly entertaining throwback, an ideologue so committed to the utopian ideal of a workers' paradise that even Czech apparatchiks view him as eccentric. His zeal has a tragic dimension, too, for even as it binds Max, honorably, to a broken ideology, it erodes his instincts for comforting Cusack's Eleanor, slowly wasting away from cancer.
On the axis of Max's absolutism and Jan's agnosticism -- Jan, a star pupil of Max's, returns to Prague at the time of the reformist regime of Alexander Dubcek -- Stoppard balances his tale of the toppling of Czech communism. It begins in 1968, just before Warsaw Pact tanks rolled into Prague to stifle Dubcek's attempt to create a freer society. And it ends two decades later, after the Velvet Revolution that ended communist domination of the country -- and prefigured the collapse of the Soviet Union itself.
The behavior of neither Max nor Jan is wholly admirable: Max plays the righteous purist from the safety of an ivory tower; Jan, exposed to the more sinister challenges of life in a closed society, makes some choices that call into question the courage of his conviction that freedom is worth whatever price it exacts. Or maybe it is because freedom becomes so dear to him that he's forced into decisions that will later cause him shame.
Freedom is a rapturous, furious, pulsating thing in "Rock 'n' Roll." The wonderful conceit of the playwright is that the fall of an empire can be divined in musical notes -- the music of Pink Floyd and the Stones, the Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan. Rock represented one aspect of counterculture in the West, where it defined a generation rebelling over warmongering and materialism. On the other side of the Iron Curtain, according to "Rock 'n' Roll," the music was an element of a more urgent, galvanizing form of dissidence -- rock's outrage was not only an expression of contempt for the status quo. It was also a threat to the state.
Perhaps, then, the most compelling character of "Rock 'n' Roll" is one we never get to see: the Czech rocker Ivan Jirous, the oft-imprisoned leader of the outlawed Czech rock band the Plastic People of the Universe. Sewell's Jan is PPU-obsessed and so, for that matter, is Stoppard. The notion to him of a musical group so unnerving to a regime that it had to be declared illegal proves to be an irresistible argument for the power of art, and the illegitimacy of an entire system.
Director Trevor Nunn's resonant production crackles with the music of the bands and songwriters who invigorate Jan, and who, in essence, lead him back into the lives of Max and his daughter Esme, played as an adult by Cusack. (An erotic groundwork is laid early in "Rock 'n' Roll, when the flower child Esme is visited in the Cambridge garden of her parents' house by a flute-playing musician she imagines to be the god Pan, but may in fact have been a drug-addled Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd.) The intricate latticework Stoppard constructs doesn't immediately make transparent all the emotional contours of the play, which is why an audience tends to greet the first act curtain with more suspicion than satisfaction. In support, too, of the three superb stars, some in the cast feel like members of a B-team (with the exception of Alice Eve as Young Esme, Nicole Ansari as another Czech at Cambridge and Stephen Kunken as a dissident friend of Jan's).
"Rock 'n' Roll," however, grows steadily in warmth and penetrating insight as it moves ever more emphatically toward a touching and conciliatory resolution. It is Stoppard's most heartening statement in years, a play in which we happily groove to the guitar licks of history.
Rock 'n' Roll by Tom Stoppard. Directed by Trevor Nunn. Sets, Robert Jones; costumes, Emma Ryott; lighting, Howard Harrison; sound, Ian Dickinson. With Seth Fisher, Mary Bacon, Quentin Mar¿, Ken Marks, Alexandra Neil, Anna O'Donoghue, Brian Avers. About three hours. At Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th St., New York. Call 800-432-7250 or visit http://www.telecharge.com.