Monday, November 05, 2007

Did Critics Want To Rock 'N' Roll All Night?

Did Critics Want To Rock 'N' Roll All Night?

Last evening, Tom Stoppard's hotly anticipated Rock 'N' Roll opened at Broadway's Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. Helmed by Trevor Nunn, the cast features Rufus Sewell along with Sinéad Cusack and Brian Cox. Reviews ranged from absolutely rhapsodic to downright disappointing (sadly, I fell into the latter category after having my hopes set, perhaps, unattainably high).

Praising it as "triumphantly sentimental," Ben Brantley of The New York Times reaffirms his earlier laurels: "Writing about the political and cultural legacy of the late 1960s in his own late 60s (Mr. Stoppard recently turned 70) has, for better or worse, exposed this playwright’s soft side -- mostly for better. Mr. Stoppard treats the contentious, confused characters of Rock ’n’ Roll with a deep, protective affection I’ve never encountered from him before, even in the supposed self-portraiture of his Real Thing....Ms. Cusack -- who plays the cancer-riddled Eleanor in the first act and her grown daughter, Esme, in the second — is marvelous as two different women of feeling holding their own among men of ideas. Her bravura presentation of Eleanor’s argument against Max’s materialism in the first act is the emotional touchstone of the play."

Offering up four stars, New York Post's Clive Barnes is ecstatic: "Sir Tom Stoppard's new play Rock 'n' Roll is funny, enthralling and, yes, it offers you something to take out of the theater you didn't come in with....The director Trevor Nunn is a wizard...at revealing the human face of Stoppard behind all the nervy, nervous brilliance. And -- a lot of any directorial success comes with the casting -- he has here a marvelous team of actors, the four leads from his original London production last year, with all the newcomers blending in with the effortless Wilde-like grace that characterizes Stoppard's writing."

Calling it a "humane play," Michael Kuchwara of the Associated Press is unequivocally positive: "It's splendid, illuminating entertainment, chock full of ideas and high-flying arguments (could there be a Stoppard play without them?) yet resonating with an emotion that springs from several fully developed characters....The amazing Sewell...anchors the richly embroidered story....Cusack, too, is extraordinary, tackling two roles."

"Dense, but enormously satisfying," is how Eric Grode of The New York Sun describes the play: "Substituting Dylan and Jagger for Bakunin and Turgenev, he completes this latest task in a third of the time and with nearly triple the impact....The astonishingly good Ms. Cusack delivers one of the single most powerful sequences in all of Stoppard, a ferocious demand that Max not reduce Eleanor and her cancer-ridden body to one of his dialectic constructs."

Saying "it's too sprawling and ambitious to be consistently involving," Joe Dziemianowicz of New York's Daily News offers a mixed assessment: "The estimable Trevor Nunn directs, and not without missteps. The cast shouts throughout the very long first act before settling in for the tighter, more satisfying second half. Cox gives heart to his barking Communist, while Sinead Cusack brings high contrast to dual roles. She morphs from searing to soft as Max's strong-willed wife and then her own hippie-chick daughter. As Jan, who might be a stand-in for the Czech-born Stoppard, Sewell paints an aptly earnest portrait as a reluctantly political man who realizes you can't play an LP without causing a revolution."

Citing its "unwieldy reflection on politics, poetics, rock music as expression of personal liberty and a whole lot else," Variety's David Rooney is more critical: "Would that the intellectually overburdened play's journey -- or those of its mostly unengaging characters -- had half the humanity packed into Sewell's wonderful performance. Rock 'n' Roll commands admiration simply by virtue of being unafraid to make demands on its audience, and it has an affecting central figure in Jan. But in order to get to 90 minutes of reasonably satisfying emotional drama, it first force-feeds you another 90 minutes of stodgy political-science backgrounding, made more cumbersome by awkward cross-cutting between Cambridge and Prague. (The latter aspect is not helped by Robert Jones' clunky set, with its pedestrian use of a central turntable.)"

Comparing Stoppard's works with "going to school," Michael Sommers of the Newark Star-Ledger offers one of the other discordant notes: "The trouble is that this erudite play's characters exist not to behave like messy human beings, but to voice different points of view. So they come to life only fitfully, despite the very good acting of director Trevor Nunn's ensemble. Stars imported from the award-winning play's London production shine brightest. Sewell's gentle Jan endures decades of troubles with saintlike patience. Cusack's quirky classics scholar blazes into rage over her piece-by-piece death."

The critical response was a bit more favorable than the audience response during the performance I attended. In fact, I overheard one person emphatically say, "This is the worst play I ever saw." While I didn't think it was quite that bad, it should be duly noted that Rock 'N' Roll clearly will not be for everyone.

Tickets are currently available through March 2, 2008.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Click here for tickets.
Related Stories:
Rock 'N' Roll (The SOB Review) (November 5, 2007)
Broadway Ready To Rock Tonight (November 4, 2007)
When It Comes To Broadway, Stoppard's On A Roll (May 16, 2007)
Which British Hits Will Be Broadway-Bound? (September 20, 2006)

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