Reviewed by Jerry Kraft
“Rock and Roll” is Tom Stoppard's autumnal rumination on youth and youthful politics. As in every Stoppard play, it is filled with ideas and erudition, a passionate pursuit of meaning on a large political and social scale and an unusually personal search for meaning on an intimate, interpersonal level. It examines such subjects as family and friendship, the political activism of individual lives, the relation of the individual to the state, of idealism and realism to politics, the ravages of cancer, the poetry of Sappho and the wages of age. Above all it is about generations in conflict and in transition. Tracing relationships over three decades, it is all joined by a soundtrack of surging, vital rock and roll from the era of records and LP's. In many ways it seems to me a theatrical version of that lofty 1970's icon, the “concept” album.
Director Kurt Beattie has assembled an excellent cast to embody the two locales of the play, rebellious and dangerous Prague and the stable but emotionally unsettled home of a Marxist professor in England. He certainly handles the intellectual labyrinth of the play with finesse, but there is a lack of authenticity and credibility to the drama, and the music feels more like something he's borrowed to outfit the play than an intrinsic, central motivator.
When Jan returns to his native Prague during the Soviet occupation in 1968 , all that he takes with him are his precious records, and we are to understand that, for him at least, they should be enough. This play is enchanted by music, beginning with a mystical appearance of a piper that a young girl believes is Pan and then leading Jan with the seduction of the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and an underground Czech group called the Plastic People of the Universe. A sub-plot about the deterioration of Syd Barrett, once the “beautiful” lead-singer of Pink Floyd, into a seedy, decrepit, pedestrian old man is the parable of aging for all the characters in this story.
His closest friend, Ferdinand (well-played by Peter Crook) will present the voices of conscience and compromise that lead him into political action and political persecution. He travels a very long way from the Cambridge security where Max, his idealistic old teacher is raising his family and looking out on a world relentlessly occurring beyond the confines of his home and his philosophy. By the time of Jan's return to Cambridge, in 1990, Max has lost his wife, his daughter has a daughter and Jan has returned from prison to a world in which little has changed but the people in it.
The second act of this quite long (3 hour) play is considerably better than the first, but so much has to happen in order for that second act to be earned that it's really too late for the work as a whole to succeed. Perhaps because the early years go by so quickly, I just never had the sense that events had gotten inside Jan, and if he is a largely passive participant then it makes it much harder to care about his journey. Matthew Floyd Miller was conscious and appealing as Jan, but I didn't really believe the music was a passion, an obsession rather than an amusement. I didn't believe his life was the result of conscious choices for which he would bear full responsibility. He was likable and endearing, but just not substantial enough to carry the weight of all these concerns. Montana von Fliss was really the most intriguing as his friend Magda, and I was also impressed by the expatriate don, Lenka, played with passion and dark insight by Alexandra Tavares. By the time of the climactic dinner scene in Act II, when Jan has returned to Max's home, he seems like a rather empty bag of a man, all the stuffing taken out of him, and whatever lessons he's learned are expressed in a very low voice.
Throughout the play, the most compelling and effective character was Max, played brilliantly by Denis Arndt. His possession of the ideas and the politics of his beliefs were visceral and incontrovertible. A devastating scene with his dying wife, Eleanor, was the high point of the first act and probably the only scene I will really retain from this whole production. Anne Allgood, who not only plays Eleanor but also her grown-up daughter, Esme, was stunning. Like Max, you could feel that the poetry she taught was in her blood, and that the body with which she battled was defined but not described by mortality. With both Max and Eleanor (Esme) I was utterly convinced of the reality of these lives and the consequence of their experience.
If only the rest of the play had been as convincing. “Rock and Roll” is a major work by a major playwright in the later part of a distinguished career. Clearly, he has arrived at a vantage point where the years behind him have greater clarity than they ever have before, and he has something to say about what it all means, what all our struggles and all our passions really amount to. But I don't think this play is his valedictory.
I had the feeling that “Rock and Roll”, much like rock and roll itself, thinks it is much more powerful and much more influential than it really is. Woodstock didn't change the world and neither does standing before tanks. It would be nice if those old songs really were as important as we once thought they were, and it would be nice if our lives were as powerful as those screaming guitars and raw lyrics, but they're just old songs, and eventually we're just old people. That is a bittersweet resolution, and this production just doesn't make the journey feel worthwhile.