Monday, November 05, 2007

Rock 'N' Roll (The SOB Review)

Rock 'N' Roll (The SOB Review) - Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, New York, NY


Talk about being caught between a rock and a hard place.

Right around the beginning of the third hour of Tom Stoppard's Rock 'N' Roll, which opened last night at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, Jan -- the play's Czech protagonist sociologist -- dares to utter what many in the audience are already thinking: "We aim for inertia."

While the context should underscore how mired and resigned the Czech people were ten years after capitulating to the Soviet occupation of 1968, it unintentially serves as a stark reminder for how frustrating Stoppard's undeniably high-minded and intensely personal work is to slog through.

Unfortunately, this very sentimental journey is all too heavy-handed, relying on far too much pontificating and far too little character or plot development, which is only hampered by Trevor Nunn's exasperating fits and starts direction. Rock 'N' Roll spans 22 years (1968-1990) and jarringly shifts back and forth between Prague and Cambridge. Just as you think the story is getting somewhere, the scene is interrupted with yet another lengthy rock and roll intersticial with nary a connection to situation.

Stoppard himself was born in Zlín, Czechoslovakia, but left as a baby. Through Jan -- portrayed with uncompromising zest by Rufus Sewell -- Stoppard explores what might have been had he never left his homeland, save providing Jan with a rare opportunity to attend England's prestigious Cambridge University.

While at Cambridge, Jan becomes a student of Professor Max Morrow (a steely Brian Cox), an avowed and unapologetic communist, who uses the Soviet's World War II victory over the Germans to remind Jan, a Jew, that he essentially owes his life to the party.

But from his lofty academic perch, Max casts a blind eye on the authoritarian realities of communism and deflects criticisms that the corrupt system inherently disapproves of free thought. As an informer to the Czech secret police, he is told "We're supposed to know what's going on inside people -- that's why it's the Ministry of the Interior."

Max ultimately betrays Jan, who's imprisoned when he's deemed unemployable -- although it's actually for his considerable subversive activities, not the least of which is being a rock and roll music aficianado and active participant in a concert from the outlawed Czech psychadelic rock band, The Plastic People of the Universe, a living breathing symbol of the Western scourge of free will. After his release from prison, Jan submits to a 12-year stint as a bakery worker until he's "freed" by the astounding 1989 Velvet Revolution, enabling him to journey back to Cambridge and confront Max with his past, but also reconnect with Max's daughter Esme.

Amidst all these noble themes, we're introduced to one unsympathetic character after another, with the exception of Jan and the two handled expertly by the amazing Sinéad Cusack, who imbues both Eleanor (Max's cancer-ridden wife) in the first act and the older Esme (Max and Eleanor's former flower child daughter) in the second with a unique level of dignity and humanity largely absent from the rest of the portrayals. Most stirring is Eleanor's comparison of her cancer to communism as she strives to impress upon Max that a mind is a terrible thing to waste.

If only the rest of play were as coherent or as riveting, I'd be able to say Rock 'N' Roll is here to stay.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Click here for tickets.
Related Stories:
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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At 08 November, 2007, Blogger Esther said...

I know the scene where Eleanor compares her cancer to communism gets a lot of praise, but I just found it kind of exploitive of her illness, almost a little tacky, like it was there for shock value.

At 08 November, 2007, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Thanks Esther - I can see your point, but it did provide some degree of humanity that was sorely lacking throughout the rest of the show.


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