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Volume 77, Number 24 | November 14 - 20, 2007

Photo by Aime Stamp

Tom Stoppard has created a new epic with “Rock ’n’ Roll,” in its American premier at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater.

Stoppard and the power chords of revolution

By JERRY TALLMER

The human brain, says tough old pragmatic Max Morrow in Tom Stoppard’s glowing “Rock ’n’ Roll,” is a kind of pinball machine. “If it wasn’t for the merely technical problem of understanding how it works, we could make one out of beer cans. It would be the size of a stadium, but it would sit there, going: ‘I think, therefore I am.’ ”

Well, I don’t know what Tom Stoppard’s brain is made of, but it isn’t beer cans. And it never stops thinking. Collecting. Connecting. Comparing. Dramatizing.

Having biopsied the seeds and Russian roots of European communism in his massive “Utopia” trilogy, Stoppard now turns his penetrating gaze on the consequences of that pandemic a century later on the Czechoslovakia of his birth.

And he does it side by side with, of all things, the rock-’n’-roll phenomenon that began sweeping the youth of the world just around the time the Soviet tanks were clanking into Prague in the summer of 1968. What the commissars and security enforcers deemed “socially negative music.”

Rock ’n’ roll vs. Stalinist communism. That’s one duality in this deep-digging evening. Another — in parallel — is unreconstructed British Communist Max Morrow, a roaring, aging lion at Cambridge University, vs. his former prized student, the Czech-born (like Stoppard) Jan, who, having returned to Prague “to save rock ’n’ roll and my mother … and socialism with a human face” after the tanks rolled in, would receive for his idealistic pains imprisonment followed by 12 years of enforced labor in a state-run bakery. Plus the state police smashing his entire record collection (an echo of a similar cruelty in the 1955 Hollywood movie “The Blackboard Jungle”).

These two, Max and Jan, go head to head, often thrillingly, through two acts and two countries — the Britain of freedom and justice, and the jackbooted but shaky Stalinist Czechoslovakia where Vaclav Havel (Stoppard’s friend and fellow playwright) will soon himself move from various imprisonments to the presidency.

In a glorious thunder-and-lightning bravura performance by Brian Cox, Max Morrow lays out his unshattered Marxist credo and apologia pro vita sua — “ ‘From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.’ What could be more simple, more rational, more beautiful?”

But the rational individual at this turn in history is ex-Communist Jan, driving Max into even deeper fury. “You bedwetter!” he rages. “If it wasn’t for 11 million Soviet military dead, your little country’d be a German province now, and you wouldn’t be bellyaching about your Socialist right to piss everywhere except in the toilet, you’d be smoke up the chimney.”

Matching Max turn for turn under director Trevor Nunn’s ministrations, counterpunching like a butterfly, stinging like a bee, is Rufus Sewell as Jan, in a performance of flexibility, tenacity, ardor, astonishing vocal range, and (all in the show do this) almost constant motion of the hands, marred only by a mistaken effort by Mr. Sewell to reach for a Czech accent. Just normal everyday English would have served better; leave the Czechiness to the imagination of us out there in the seats.

“Rock ’n’ Roll” would hardly be a Stoppard play if it weren’t also about men and women and the shifting tides of love lost and found over the generations. Because of the doubling in certain roles, I had some difficulty sorting one generation’s woman from another, but leading the assembly is Sinead Cusack as Max’s wife, the Sapphic-poetry-minded Eleanor … and then, later, after Eleanor is dead, as her and Max’s grown daughter Esme, who has long warmed Jan’s diffident heart without his knowing it.

It is as the dying Eleanor that this actress has her on-stage triumph in an aching, love-seeking cry of the stricken self. Does Ms. Cusack tear a passion to tatters? Well, the body of cancer-ridden Eleanor is already in tatters. “They’ve cut out, cauterized, and zapped away my breasts, my ovaries, my womb, half my bowel, and a nutmeg out of my brain, and I am undiminished, I’m exactly who I’ve always been.”

Max, just love me, is the idea. It is something to see, and deeply moving to hear.

Esme when younger and her daughter are smartly played by Alice Eve. Nicole Ansari has the role of the bisexual Lenka who gobbles up first the bookish Eleanor and then Max.

Among the remaining performances, a nice cold portrait of a state-security apparatchik from the Ministry of the Interior is tersely, urbanely sketched by Quentin Mare. “You left Czechoslovakia just before the Occupation,” he says to the now returning Jan, who draws a blank. Does the guy mean his own Soviet tanks?

“The Occupation. The Nazis. Hitler,” is the dry amplification by the interrogator, who also throws it in Jan’s face that he, Jan, is a Jew, isn’t he? And then: “We’re supposed to know what’s going on inside people. That’s why it’s the Ministry of the Interior.”

Only Tom Stoppard could come up with a sunbeam like that.

I have got this far, here, without even mentioning the raison d’être, or half the raison d’être, of the whole work: rock ’n’ roll. It blasts or lulls into the theater at scene-shifting intervals throughout the show — Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles [Lennon], the Velvet Underground, the Beach Boys, Syd Barrett [as Pan the piper], Pink Floyd, and most particularly, a wierd, “undesirable,” little-known “socially negative” (indeed, revolution-making) home-grown psychedelic Czech group, The Plastic People of the Universe, doomed in real life to be smashed out of existence by the pre-Havel Stalinist police.

The music by one outfit or another plays, pounds, bellows, enfolds, while big-screen projections give concurrent titles, artists, dates, venues — mostly the famed Abbey Road studios. And then, cutting back in like a knife, the lights blaze back up, the music is silenced, the play leaps ahead toward its almost Chekhovian conclusion.

To unrepentant Max, one of Stoppard’s greatest creations, the whole of the flower-power student-revolutionary 1960s was nothing but “street theater.”

Wrong, says the brainy Lenka who ends up as his woman. “Don’t try to put me on your side, Max,” she says. “ ‘Make love, not war,’ was more important than ‘Workers of the World Unite.’ ”

That is the crux of the matter, the crux of the play. Tom Stoppard, who was taken out of Czechoslovakia to the Far East as a child, and thereafter became a Brit in all else, did not, unlike Jan, go back to Czechoslovakia until Havel and Charter 77 were on the way to triumph. Though Stoppard’s biologic parents were Jews, in nothing much else — except the British boyhood — does he resemble Jan. But the roots are there, blown into drama now.

Yes, Stoppard’s “Rock ’n’ Roll” is rather long (just under 3 hours). But it is worth it and then some. Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. This play says: Remember.
 
ROCK ’N’ ROLL. By Tom Stoppard. Directed by Trevor Nunn. At the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater, 242 West 45th Street, (212) 239-6200.


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