Rock ‘n’ Roll
By Tom Stoppard
Directed by Carey Perloff
American Conservatory Theater (ACT)
September 11-October 18, 2008
Jud Williford, Manoel Felciano. Photo by Kevin berne. www.kevinberne.com.
Tom Stoppard is a great playwright. Consequently one assumes that every play he writes is going to be terrific. “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” now having its long-anticipated West Coast premiere at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, may be the exception that proves the rule. That this play, about a Cambridge professor, his family and his protégé, a young Czech grad student who returns to Prague just after the Russian tanks roll in, is a confusing and often boring mishmash of words and ideas may be the fault of the script, talky, laden with dialectic and less amusing than Stoppard’s previous works, but it also may be the fault of Carey Perloff’s production which does little to help the audience navigate the muddy waters of the playwright’s political polemics.
It’s rough sailing too as Max (Jack Willis), the professor, a diehard Communist, goes on endlessly about the Party and the System over the course of two tumultuous decades in which the story is set. A little easier to take is the ex-student, Jan (Manoel Felciano), who just wants to be alone to listen to his beloved record collection. He’s not above collaborating with the regime in order to achieve his goals but basically he would just prefer to rock on. But that’s not possible in a totalitarian system and he finds himself caught up in the events of the day, in and out of jail and dead-ended in a low level job.
Meanwhile, back in Cambridge (the play jumps around in locale as much as in time, with only the sets: an English garden and a Prague garret, and flashing numbers on the walls to give you a clue as to where or when), the professor’s wife, Eleanor, becomes ill. Rene Augeson has the play’s best moment as she rages against the cancer that is eating away at her body and her life. In the second act, Augeson comes back as Esme, Eleanor and Max’s daughter, a former flower child who has made a mess of her life. In love with Jan since she was 16, she beds and weds an uptight journalist (Anthony Fusco) and, when it doesn’t work out, returns home with her own teenaged daughter (Summer Serafin) to keep house for her widowed father. Somehow, in spite of distance – or perhaps because of it – Esme and Jan, linked by their mutual love of music, carry their long-suppressed love for each other through the final moments of the play.
A side story about “Syd” Barrett, former member of Pink Floyd, whose lyrics distilled the spirit of the British Summer of Love (1967 (when the play begins), and his deterioration into an ordinary, somewhat pitiable, fellow whose brain got fried on acid early on is a tad mysterious to those who weren’t there (or weren’t paying attention). Barrett never appears in the play except as a ghostly piper who serenades the nubile Esme one night but she never forgets him either and his sad saga runs through the play. As does much music and mention of Jan’s beloved Plastic People of the Universe, a real Czech rock band, immortalized in Vaclav Havel’s “The Trial,” that dared to defy the ruling regime and lives to perform to this day.
Then there are the Czech occupiers and Party functionaries and the dissidents. James Carpenter has a nice turn as Milan, one of the former, and Jud Williford is excellent as Jan’s friend Ferdinand, rarely seen without a petition in his hand. There’s a lot here, both of musical and social history, as well as Stoppard’s fanciful autobiographical look backward at what might have been had he and his Czech parents not fled the Nazis to eventually settle in England. But it seems too much, too fast, too jumbled. You really have to study the extensive program notes to get it all (or most of it). The playwright’s masterful “Arcadia” had a lot of social history also, as well as the eternal fascination with words that surfaces in all of his plays (here, Eleanor is a philologist, an expert on the poetry of Sappho) but it was graceful, fascinating and art. In “Rock ‘n’ Roll” it feels as chaotic and blaring as the music that punctuates every scene change. Maybe that was the point. Maybe it depends where your head is.