Theater Review: Peter Marks on Tom Stoppard's 'Rock 'n' Roll' at Studio Theatre

Stafford Clark-Price as the Czech intellectual Jan in Stoppard's heady drama.
Stafford Clark-Price as the Czech intellectual Jan in Stoppard's heady drama. (By Scott Suchman)
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By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 28, 2009

To Jan, the unlikely Czech hero of Tom Stoppard's warm and invigorating "Rock 'n' Roll," explosively rollicking music is freedom. Not because of what it unleashes, but what it refuses to be. In a land of subjugated citizens and suppressed creativity, rock is a force that cannot be put in chains.

It's the spirit of the AM/FM sound of the '60s, of the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd, the Beatles and Cream, that pulls together the varied emotional and political currents of Stoppard's wise, thinking-person's play. The pulsing tempos themselves pleasurably suffuse the air of Studio Theatre's trenchant production, staged by the company's resident Stoppard enthusiast, artistic director Joy Zinoman.

Mind you, "Rock 'n' Roll" is no concert -- not a sit-back-and-take-it-in sort of evening. To quote the estimable Judge Judy, you have to "put on your listening ears" for this one, for Stoppard's restlessly curious brain takes you down paths that will strike more than a few playgoers as exotic, even opaque. The Prague Spring and Velvet Revolution; the Czech leaders Alexander Dubcek and Gustav Husak; the poetry of Sappho and the music of an obscure underground band, the Plastic People of the Universe; all figure prominently in a story that has as a backdrop the gradual erosion and then rapid collapse of the Soviet empire.

The dramatist, soon to be represented in town by another of his great works, "Arcadia," at Folger Theatre, reserves almost all of a long first act for sketching the tragicomic borders of the play, whose major locales are a house in Cambridge and a flat in Prague. (Enjoyment doesn't depend on an obsession with modern Eastern European history -- but it couldn't hurt.) Along the way, moments arise that are redolent of Stoppard's wit and insight. Still, it's not until Act 2, after events have outraged, battered and mellowed the characters in myriad ways, that the effect of "Rock 'n' Roll" migrates fully from the head to the heart.

This movement is capably encouraged by Zinoman's 17-member cast, and particularly by the trio of actors -- Stafford Clark-Price, Ted van Griethuysen and Lisa Harrow -- around whom the others orbit. Van Griethuysen is the bruising Max, a Cambridge don and rabid armchair communist; Harrow plays both Max's scholar wife, Eleanor, and later his grown daughter Esme. Clark-Price is Jan, a Czech intellectual (and no admirer of the hammer and sickle), who goes to Cambridge to study with Max and then returns to Prague to try to cope with the random jailing and other pettier forms of government harassment.

The play covers the years 1968 -- when Dubcek undertook an ultimately abortive effort to liberalize Czech government and loosen Soviet controls -- to just after the peaceful 1989 revolt that upended communism in then-Czechoslovakia.

We're not meant to be witnesses to history, exactly, but rather to see the changing political landscape from a slight distance, refracted chiefly through the experiences of Jan. Neither a true believer nor a true dissident, Jan simply wants the freedom to be himself, an individualistic ideology expressed in his devotion to the rock groups of the West and their emulators, such as the Plastic People, in the East. Jan is not a naif, though, as his clandestine contacts with government apparatchiks allow us to see.

Max is, you might say, his "B" side, an older communist so committed that he refuses to give up on the party in Britain long after most of the rest of its members have. Harrow's Eleanor, meanwhile, suffering from breast cancer, can't compete with Max's major passion, his clinging to a Utopian Marxist ideal. One of the work's most affecting moments comes courtesy of the superb Harrow, as the seriously ill Eleanor makes a final, wrenching plea for Max's undivided attention -- a plea to be enveloped in the consoling care of another human soul.

In Zinoman's production, we watch the unfolding of these intermingled lives from all sides. Studio's upstairs Milton Theatre has been reconfigured by set designer Russell Metheny as an in-the-round space. Unlike the elaborate West End and Broadway productions of a couple of years back, this "Rock 'n' Roll" is staged with minimal scenery. On panels affixed to the walls, Erik Trester's projections of album covers and skylines provide a sense of the rock history that's coinciding with the political. The sparseness assists in the seamlessness of the storytelling.

Clark-Price offers an appealingly mild-mannered Jan, though you might at times want a stronger notion of anguish or alarm to come over his inscrutable, smiling eyes. Van Griethuysen is again ideally cast here, as an ideologue whose intellectual arrogance impedes his better nature. In support of them, several others contribute acutely rendered portraits, especially Caroline Bootle as another Czech academic; Jay Sullivan, playing a young British leftist who locks horns with Max; and David Agranov as a Prague dissident forever lobbying the agnostic Jan to join the cause.

You can sense the playwright's deep affection for these characters and this music, an affinity that becomes our indispensable companion across the play's raucous timeline. A period that in Stoppard's dexterous hands rolls -- and rocks.

Rock 'n' Roll, by Tom Stoppard. Directed by Joy Zinoman. Lighting, Michael Giannitti; costumes, Helen Q. Huang; sound, Gil Thompson. With Adam Pribila, Katie Henney, Sarah Strasser, Richard Price, Emily Townley, Lawrence Redmond, Alex Zavistovich, Veronica del Cerro, Michael Wright. About 2 hours 45 minutes. Through May 31 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Visit or call 202-332-3300.

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