Written by Tom Stoppard
Directed by Trevor Nunn
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre
242 West 45th Street
Among its many triumphs, the most notable feat in Tom Stoppard’s sharp-witted Rock ‘n’ Roll might be the fact that it’s the first play in history to draw parallels between the fall of Communism and the decline of Syd Barrett. What’s even more impressive is that it does this so effectively. Barrett, the ousted Pink Floyd singer-guitarist who later became a recluse (not to mention a poster child for Nancy Reagan-era “Just Say No!” campaigns), is not exactly a character in the play, but his presence is felt nonetheless. And as Stoppard’s characters repeatedly reference Barrett’s decaying mental state, we know it signals the end of an era for Czechoslovakia.
Rock ‘n’ Roll shuffles us back and fourth between England and Prague, opening in 1968, as the Soviet invasion into Czechoslovakia is in full swing, and ending in 1990, shortly after the Czechs’ Velvet Revolution and the demise of the Communist government there. Jan (Rufus Sewell), a Czech-born student with a bookcase full of rock albums and an endless supply of music-can-change-the-world idealism, returns to his native country in late ’68 despite the protests of his mentor, Max (the fabulous Brian Cox), a Cambridge professor and dyed-in-the-wool Commie who longs for the Marxist purism of his youth. Jan and Max spend the next two decades defending their seemingly incompatible ideals against the changing political backdrops of their respective countries.
The themes presented in Rock ‘n’ Roll are nothing new, of course, as characters have bickered over political systems and free expression since the dawn of theater. But Stoppard’s crackling dialogue makes it all feel fresh. His characters are so uniformly thick-headed, so sure in their beliefs, that it’s difficult to take sides in their arguments. The play’s rock-infused transitions add musical insight from the likes of the Rolling Stones, the Velvet Underground, and even the Cure, and each song is perfectly placed to evoke the appropriate feeling for its accompanying scene. Even Barrett’s solo music, which generally makes me want to reach for the nearest bottle of Prozac, seems fittingly contemplative in context.
Trevor Nunn’s agile direction is aided by a superb cast. Sinead Cusack is particularly spellbinding as Max’s cancer-stricken wife, Eleanor, who takes her husband’s Darwinian materialism as a condemnation that her imminent death will mean the end of her soul. Once the play transitions to the late ‘80s, Cusack is equally effective as the grownup version of Eleanor’s flaky daughter, Esme, who muses incessantly about a personal serenade she once received from the now-half-baked Barrett. Alice Eve, who plays the younger Esme and, later, Esme’s teenage daughter, is a delight in both roles. Eve’s best moment comes in 1987, when, as Esme’s Madonna-loving spawn, she hilariously captures the nascent whines of a proto-Gen-Xer.
Rock ‘n’ Roll leaves a bit of a hole when it abruptly jumps from 1977 to 1987, which eliminates the chance to reference the punk movement of the late ‘70s. (I felt like I’d missed something when U2 blared suddenly throughout the theater.) As a music lesson, this omission would be unforgivable, but Rock ‘n’ Roll is more of a history lesson. And Stoppard, who is an apparent sucker for jam bands, has found a fitting marriage between the music he loves and the social change it helped to inspire.
Originally published in Show Business Weekly, October 2007