“What you like about brains,” a Czech emigrant classics student named Lenka tells the Communist Cambridge philosophy don Max in Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll, “… is that they all work in the same way. What you don’t like about minds is that they don’t.” Brains, as the discussion goes on with Max’s wife, the classicist Eleanor, are delineated as machines with some parts in common but vastly differential capacity.
Since his startling 1960s debut, Stoppard has demonstrated an incredibly high-end model brain in service to one of the most original dramatic minds of our era. Rock ‘n’ Roll, in a magnificent, intimate production in Studio Theatre’s Milton Theatre, is among Stoppard’s more personal plays. That doesn’t mean it’s touchy feely, by any means. If Stoppard created theatre for mime, he’d somehow manage to make it highly cerebral and conversational, for words, not plot points or effects or standard-issue suspense, are his oxygen. But though Rock ‘n’ Roll basks, as always with Stoppard, in ideas — intricate discussions and allusions to Czech history, Communism, Sappho’s poetry, and ’60s and ’70s psychedelic rock ‘n’ roll from Velvet Underground to the Plastic People of the Universe, the play is fundamentally about loves and loyalties of various sorts, and about the cold wars within each of us between our human weaknesses and our generally unattainable ideals.
Now if Joe Playwright were assigned to write about such matters, he might cling for dear life to Aristotle’s three unities, and have four or five folks yapping about East European history from the safety of a drawing room for an hour and a half. Maybe he’d throw in a spy or two, pale lighting, and add some Le Carre-suitable fog and trench-coat ambience.
Stoppard, being Stoppard, gives himself the same assignment, and with characteristic come-what-may confidence, creates a messy double-cast intergenerational comedic-dramatic stew of family and friends, complete with second-marriage and adolescent significant others, plus a Czech apparatchik and intelligence operator. He divides the action between Cambridge and Prague, spirals the chronology over a couple decades, dices in a couple challenging academic disciplines and the history of rock, stirs, and reduces to an unforgettable two-and-a-half-hour zesty dish of fleeting and universal desires. That’s why he’s Tom Stoppard and we’re not.
Director Joy Zinoman matches the playwright in gleeful gall, staging this sprawling saga in a diminutive in-the-round environment, using Russell Metheny’s deceptively simple looking stage furnishings and Erik Trester’s projections, with the help of Michael Giannitti’s lighting, to transform year, cityscape, and mood in ingenious ways. At Studio, I’m oft reminded of the incredible power of conceptually simple but logistically near-impossible stagecraft when it’s done well. I’m thinking, for instance, of the cast’s silent in-the-dark gathering at table before a climactic late scene.
But all the stagecraft in the world would be for naught were it not for the wonderful players. Stafford Clark-Price, as the Czech scholar Jan, is sweet and intelligent, and his devotion to the rock gods most palpable. He ages credibly, his core delight at living melding touchingly with the sad wear and tear an oppressive Czech government has taken on him. Ted van Griethuysen is a volcanically intense Max, who fuses Gielgud-like pinched-face irony, granite ideological seriousness, and vulnerability to vicissitudes of family misfortune and erotic temptation.
And let me be the umpteenth critic to point out how harrowing is Lisa Harrow’s performance as Eleanor, who is dying of cancer. Eleanor’s entwined fortitude and desperation provide an emotional pivot point. Later, as Eleanor and Max’s grown daughter Esme, Harrow stirs us again with the character’s midlife frustration and bafflement in the realms of academe, romance, and motherly and daughterly duties. Harrow can say more with a silent expression or a grunt or a stammer than most actors could with a 10-minute soliloquy.
Caroline Bootle is a passionate Lenka, a character who is dynamic in herself, but even more so as the insurgently threatening and reminiscent counterpoint to the dying flame of Eleanor. Katie Henney, the young Esme and later Esme’s teenage daughter Alice, is spritely and tough in a clipped, slightly jaded, and fiercely intelligent way. David Agranov endows Jan’s more politically inclined Prague friend Ferdinand with a believably competitive and brusque attitude.
Lawrence Redmond is darkly funny, in an Orwellian mode, as a Czech interrogator — in his wake, you’ll never perceive the offer of a biscuit in quite the same way again. Alex Zavistovich is quietly menacing as a Czech intelligence agent, Milan, whose perverse smile suggests he holds cards you never even knew were dealt. And Richard Price, the well-meaning, harried, slightly dense journalist Nigel, Esme’s ex-husband, stands in nicely for that portion of the audience’s collective mind that’s understandably overwhelmed by his in-laws’ arcane passions and complications. After all, it’s no ordinary clan that throws around insults like “anarchic asswipe” in discussing Soviet Marxist history during casual preparation for a festive luncheon.
Stoppard’s Marxist banter blends interestingly with the rock worship, particularly references to Pink Floyd inspirational founding member and washout Syd Barrett. Here he is a rock ‘n’ roll Pan, a musical reflection of the political pipers of communism and capitalism, which are at best lovely, elusive, instructive; at worst, hideous, confrontational, abusive. Among the many tracks abruptly interspersed with the action is the Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.”
“Wouldn’t it be nice to live together / In the kind of world where we belong,” they coo. In context, that sounds a bit like “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” “What could be more simple? … beautiful?” asks Max about the maxim popularized by Marx a century earlier.
They both sound nice — don’t they? — at some remove: the Beach Boys’ yearning and Marx’s paradigm. But as this powerful, bittersweet play laments, it’s in the sorting and sifting and application of such lofty visions that we mortals tend to fall far short.
Rock ‘n’ Roll
by Tom Stoppard
directed by Joy Zinoman
produced by The Studio Theatre
reviewed by Alexander C. Kafka
All photos: Scott Suchman
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