Sunday, February 10, 2008

It's Only "Rock 'n' Roll," And I'm Ambivalent

Two weeks ago my housemate and I went to NYC to see Rock 'n' Roll on Broadway. I started drafting this review as soon as I got back, but my busy student life intervened, and I never got around to posting it. But I'm sick of it sitting in my Drafts folder, so here it is, though slightly less polished than I'd like.

Rufus Sewell as Jan. Photo by Joan Marcus from

Rock 'n' Roll, the new Tom Stoppard play about communism, Czechoslovakia, and the power of music, took a long time to grab me. The first act is long, and mostly consists of scenes of our hero Jan (Rufus Sewell) being politically confused and changing his mind repeatedly. But because these scenes take place in his Prague apartment, we never see the external events that make him change his mind, just hear about them. The play's rhythm feels jerky--static and talky scenes alternating with '60s-'70s rock music during the transitions. Stoppard attempts to add human interest by such actions as having Jan's lover leave him for his best friend. But because we don't care enough about the characters, nor see their relationships fully develop, it all feels very ho-hum.

In addition, I really didn't like Sewell's overdone performance as the young Jan. The play requires Jan to be naive, more concerned with his music collection than with political realities. But in Sewell's portrayal, Jan is more than naive--he is silly. He giggles and shrugs and mugs in a way that is meant to be boyishly charming but just comes off as immature. You can hardly believe that this clown is supposed to have two doctorates in Philosophy.

Stoppard finally proves that he still has great playwriting skill toward the end of Act One. First, there is a monologue that manages to be both touching and intellectual in that Stoppard way: Eleanor, wife of the hard-line Marxist professor Max, is dying of cancer, and rails against her disease and against her husband's belief that human beings are nothing more than their bodies. Actress Sinead Cusack is excellent here. Then, back in Czechoslovakia, Jan discovers that the police have broken into his apartment and destroyed his music collection. The only album he has left is Pet Sounds, because he had loaned it to a friend. "Ah well," Jan says in a choked-up voice, "it's only rock 'n' roll." And begins to pick up the shattered LPs while listening to "Wouldn't It Be Nice"--that song so heartbreaking in its innocent faith that life will be perfect in the future. End of Act One.

Another great song choice begins the second act: "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" by U2. One of the biggest hits of 1987, it establishes that the play has jumped forward 10 years, but also lets us know that the characters still feel unfulfilled. Later in that act, The Cure's "Boys Don't Cry" caps an emotional moment. Song choices like these, though, only make you wish that every song used in the play was as effective, as attuned to the characters' situation.

Rock 'n' Roll is an intellectual play, and I think I understand its big theme: human beings are not predictable machines, not cogs in the wheel of a system. Our bodies break down but our minds remain intact (represented by Eleanor); our minds break down but our bodies remain intact (represented by Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett); even the best of us do illogical things like voting for political parties that do not have our best interests at heart. And thus totalitarian systems are doomed to fail.

But the parts of the play that make you lean forward, the parts that you remember after it's done, aren't the long speeches arguing political positions nor the cute metaphors that Stoppard finds to explain the more difficult concepts. Instead, it's the human scenes. It's Jan reconnecting with Max and his daughter Esme after the Iron Curtain falls. Jan, no longer silly and boyish, made grey-haired and hesitant and afraid after years in Communist Czechoslovakia. It's the shattered record collection. It's Eleanor rage-raging against the dying of the light. It's the final moment, where the whole theater turns into the spectators at a Rolling Stones concert--a wonderful moment of communion between the audience and the actors. Communion, not communism. Plus good old-fashioned Western capitalism and rock 'n' roll.

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