In Prague with friends, I was extremely insistent we visit the Communist museum. I thought the exhibits of communist control would feel distant from recent history. After all, the museum is above a McDonald’s and next to a casino. Yet as I wandered the halls and learned about the Velvet Revolution, I found middle-aged museum-goers in tears. They still remember the mandatory conformity, the limits of expression, and most importantly, the arrests. Tom Stoppard, who wrote the semi-autobiographical Rock’N’Roll, also remembers the communist years with the same immediacy. His sprawling play, now running at the Studio Theater, requires careful attention and a solid grasp of history. It’s complex entertainment, rich with rewards and great tunes.
It’s Cambridge in the late 60s, and a brilliant young Czech named Jan passionately argues with Max, his mentor. Prague Spring just began, and Jan wants to go back to his homeland and be where the action is. Max accuses Jan of being an impure communist, whereas Jan sees no problem with sacrificing his Marxist ideals to achieve some workable solution. Such curmudgeonly protests cannot stop Jan, so he leaves England and takes his rock n roll records with him. The lives of these two will occasionally intersect over the following decades, and the play looks at their friends and family, with a focus on how communism (and rock music) affect them.
Max is married to Eleanor, who has breast cancer but still manages to tutor the beautiful Lenka on Sappho’s poetry. Eleanor and Max a daughter, Esme, who gleefully embraces the 60s lifestyle. She has her own daughter, Alice, on a commune. Meanwhile Jan and his friend Ferdinand discuss music and the nature of rebellion. Jan doesn’t think it’s only rock n roll – he argues rock music in Prague best symbolizes freedom in a communist state. Yet as the years continue, the regime becomes increasingly totalitarian, and soon Jan’s finds his records destroyed.
The material is certainly ambitious – its considerable ideas are at times difficult to take in. I often found myself thinking about the intricacies of a character’s argument, only to find they’ve veered into an entirely new topic, or have burst into tears. The intersection of the mental and the physical, as well as ideals and practice, clearly fascinate Stoppard. Sappho and Syd Barrett become symbols for elation and fleeting sanity, and the Plastic People of the Universe serve as a lightning rod for totalitarian censorship. The characters are erudite in the same way, and soon the play feels like one big conversation about human nature. I don’t intend that as a criticism – Antebellum, currently playing at Woolly Mammoth, could not find the right combination of philosophy and character development that Rock’N’Roll consistently achieves.
In the hands of weak actors, such dialog could easily sound clunky. Thankfully the cast manages to infuse even the most abstract diatribes with humanity. As Eleanor in the first act and Esme in the second, Lisa Harrow shines by undergoing an alarming array of emotions. Her Eleanor scenes with Max are among the most relatable, and even inspire some spontaneous applause. As Max, Ted van Griethuysen is commanding presence, the kind of brutish intellectual whose considerable size matches his ego. Van Griethuysen spends much the play angry (perhaps even when it’s unnecessary), and he pithily delivers the play’s funniest lines. Stafford Clark Price, who plays Jan, has a completely convincing accent, and his youthful idealistic eyes convincingly soften as the years continue. The production is elegantly effective. Record libraries and tables rush between scenes as classic rock plays (I like how abruptly the music ends when a new scene begins). And helpful displays illuminate the year as the play continues.
Like other stories similar in scope, the play is a messy affair. Lives intersect in surprising ways, and long after characters bitterly fight, a nostalgic sheen softens the disputes. The ideas behind arguments, which are at times maddeningly specific, become more universal. It’s no surprise that such a massive undertaking has some shortcomings. The final twenty minutes are inevitable and appropriate, yet lack the urgency of the first act. Such a complaint is minor – Rock’N’Roll is a great play, the kind you should probably see twice. Once it’s over, just be sure to budget time for discussion and a trip to Som Records.
directed by Joy Zinoman
featuring Ted van Griethuysen, Stafford Clark Price, and Lisa Harrow
In The Milton Theatre