Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Rock 'n' Roll

If you're going to call your play "Rock 'n' Roll," at the very least it should have some of the energy and vitality associated with rock music. But despite the title, Tom Stoppard's new play, being performed at Broadway's Jacobs Theatre, too often reminded me of the mind-numbing blandness of elevator music.

Stoppard contrasts the life of British Communist and Cambridge University academic Max Morrow, played by Brian Cox, with that of Jan, his former student, played by Rufus Sewell. Both are re-creating the roles they played to great acclaim in London's West End. Also from the British cast are Sinead Cusack, in a dual role as Max's wife in the first act and his daughter in the second act, and Nicole Ansari, who portrays a Czech expatriate.

Jan returns to Czechoslovakia in 1968, just after the Soviet crackdown of a politically liberal government. The play spans the years between that period, known as Prague Spring, and the nonviolent Velvet Revolution of 1989 that finally brought down the Communist regime.

The most interesting parts of "Rock 'n' Roll" contrast Max's fervent belief in Communism and idealized view of the Soviet Union with the reality of Jan's life under a Communist government that quashes dissent, imprisons artists for being "parasites," and controls where people can live and work, even the music they can listen to.

Max's image of the Soviet Union is a place where "volumes of poetry in editions of a hundred thousand sold out in a day." Don't kid yourself, Jan tells him dismissively, "If pornography was available, the poetry would have sold like poetry in the West."

"Rock 'n' Roll" works best when the contrast between these two views is clear and vivid, when the dialogue is biting and direct. But too often, I found myself not really understanding the point that characters were trying to make. The philosophy got a bit muddled and preachy. Part of the problem for me may be that Stoppard is trying to cram too many ideas, too much history and political philosophy, into the play. And all of this comes at the expense of character development.

As a result, Jan kind of floats through this turbulent period. He never seems to be a fully realized individual. He never seems particularly defiant or defeated, even when horrible things happen to him, simply kind of detached. I had a hard time figuring out whether, or how, those experiences had changed him. And Max's Communism comes across more as an amusing eccentricity. He's a museum piece. While Cox and Sewell do a good job with what they're given, I just wanted to know more about them.

Stoppard is very interested in the role rock 'n' roll, and specifically the Czech band Plastic People of the Universe, played in effecting change during that time period. It was the arrest and prosecution of band members that led playwright (and later president) Vaclav Havel to write Charter 77, a manifesto criticizing human-rights abuses. Jan admires the band for its refusal to go along with the system. In a society where people agree "to be bribed by places at university or an easy ride at work," the Plastics are "unbribable."

The other stories - of Max's flower child daughter, of his wife, ill with cancer, simply never resonated with me, sad as they may be. I found the tangents - his daughter's fascination with former Pink Floyd band member Syd Barrett, his wife's teaching of the Greek poet Sappho, somewhat beside the point. Maybe they fit, but the connection was beyond me. Also, playing snippets of rock songs between scenes seemed forced. I could never figure out whether Stoppard selected a specific song to go along with a specific scene.

Max would have become a Communist in the 1930s, a time of excruciating poverty brought on by the Great Depression, a time when it seemed as if only the Soviet Union and those on the left were fighting against fascism in Spain and Nazism in Germany. At one point, he tells Jan, who is Jewish, that without the Soviet Union, he would be "smoke up the chimney." Jan tells Max that he would gladly trade workers owning the means of production for the British protections of free speech and the rule of law.

This dialogue - about the idealized view of a society and the more messy reality, about how to effect change in a totalitarian society, is when the play really comes to life. Unfortunately, those moments don't happen often enough.

(I thought it was especially ironic that Max, champion of the working class, seems to have no problem pulling strings to get his granddaughter admitted to Cambridge a year early.)

Theses two stories, about life under totalitarian governments in Eastern Europe, about British intellectuals' dalliance with Communism, have been told better. The Oscar-winning film "The Lives of Others" is a riveting look at East Germany and its secret police and how it was used to quell artistic expression. The BBC miniseries on the Cambridge spies explored the real-life counterparts of Max Morrow, what attracted them to Communism, and what eventually led them to betray their country.

There's an eight-page supplement that comes with the Playbill, describing some of the history and ideas in "Rock 'n' Roll." Perhaps it would have been better if I'd read it beforehand, but I shouldn't have to read it. All I need to know should be up there on stage.

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