Tom Stoppard’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll” is a lengthy and ambitious play that involves three generations and covers Czech political history over a span of 22 years, with time lines punctuated by rock and roll music. Thankfully it is also engrossing and mercifully only one-third the length of “The Coast of Utopia.” It is specifically the journey of its principal character Jan (Rufus Sewell), a Czech-born Cambridge-educated student of political science and an enthusiast of rock and roll. This very complexly structured play is all about the turbulent impact that rock and roll has on Jan’s life at home and abroad. It will not disappoint Stoppard’s fans nor will it disappoint those about to discover that good theater has a right to be entertaining as well as intellectually stimulating.
Jan’s experiences have as much to do with the influential music of the Czech band the Plastic People of the Universe, Syd Barrett’s last gig with Pink Floyd, and the significance of the John Lennon wall in Prague, as they do with the Czechoslovakian invasion by the Soviets, the epiphany that followed the end of Communist leadership in 1989, and the Rolling Stones concert in Prague in 1990. To put things into an even broader perspective (if that’s possible), a superb cast of 13 under the astute direction of Trevor Nunn become entangled in romance, family squabbles, recriminations, and any number of ironic twists that determine their fate.
Jan is a young man who, as an infant, was whisked out of his native country by his parents to escape the Nazis. As a concerned, impetuous, and impressionable student at Cambridge in 1968, he has responded to the socio-political philosophy expressed by his professor Max (Brian Cox), an avid Marxist political theorist. Perhaps misguided but most likely indirectly influenced by his mentor, Jan returns to his roots just as the Soviet occupation is initiating restraints on artists and activists. A fan of rock and roll and the many other emerging rock groups, Jan has a particular affection and interest in the Plastic People of the Universe, whose appearances, labeled as subversive, have provoked unrest and police action.
Jan’s efforts to remain outside the ideological divides and conflicts going on around him, despite the attempts by his best friend Ferdinand (Stephen Kunken) to involve him, are futile, and he becomes targeted by the regime. Sewell’s performance is both quirky and touching. As Jan, he ages gently without losing his character’s underlying sense of wonder at life’s fortunes and misfortunes.
However chaotic and traumatic things get for Jan in Prague, he is ultimately defined as much by the musical culture he has embraced as he is by his friends, whom we get to see as the play’s scenes return periodically to Cambridge. These, unfortunately, are rather perfunctorily designed by Robert Jones although the numerous blackouts between scenes allow for the projections that identify the various songs.
As Max, Cox bellows his idealistic vision of Marxism to all who will listen but especially to rile the respectful but more liberally inclined Jan, a supporter of Communist reformer Alexander Dubcek. More empathetic is Sinead Cusack, as Max’s wife Eleanor, a classics professor dying of cancer. Later in the play the wonderful Ms. Cusack gets to play her own grown-up daughter, Esme, whom we first meet as a day-dreaming flower child with a crush on Jan. She is charmingly played by Alice Eve. Later as time lapses, Eve also plays Esme’s impulsive daughter, Alice.
There are other fine actors playing numerous characters who are factored into this confluence of music and politics. But, as you may surmise, people grow up and move on in Stoppard’s courageously convoluted world of academics, dissidents, and lovers of that most radical, divisive and revolutionary expression of counter-culture — rock ‘n’ roll.
“Rock ‘n’ Roll,” through March 2, the Jacobs Theater, 242 West 45th Street. 212-239-6200.