New York and Connecticut theater reviews and news

New York City Theater

"Rock ‘n’ Roll"
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, Manhattan

Tom Stoppard’s new play, “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” came into town with a bang, but closes—for the moment at least, with a whimper. One can only hope that the current stage-hand strike ends quickly, and that Broadway goes about its business once more.

“Rock ‘n’ Roll,” in so many ways typical of the Stoppard genius, is brilliant, searing, intellectually challenging, and at times nearly incomprehensible. As always, Stoppard interweaves individual stories with historic events, the personal with the universal. His theme is that history impacts on lives, while, conversely, people make history. But audiences can easily founder in Stoppard verbiage, as he explores political/social issues. It takes work and serious background reading to get a handle on Stoppard plays.

The playwright’s current themes were played out previously in “The Coast of Utopia,” a trilogy which enjoyed a successful run at Lincoln Center. But this time around, “Rock ‘n’ Roll” deals with a time much closer to home. It unfolds alternately in Cambridge and Prague, from 1968 to 1990.

The point Stoppard makes is that rock and roll music had an enormous impact on Europe, and particularly Communist Europe. (And we had thought it was simply an American phenomenon, a 1960s youthful rebellion against a stuffy society!) Young Europeans went wild over Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones, and the like, including the home-grown Czech band, the Plastic People of the Universe. Furthermore, musicians could be jailed—and were jailed--for offering such degenerate music, while in America disapproval was much less punishing.

The story itself deals with three generations of an academic family in Cambridge, England--and one Czech student, who studies with the patriarch of that family. Rock and roll music and Communism are the religions which ignite the several characters. One watches the early enthusiasm for Communism, gradually tempered by events, as disillusion sets in, but the rock and roll aficionados never waver. Against this background, a very moving love story unfolds.

This British import brought to Broadway under Trevor Nunn’s direction features a stellar cast. Topping the list is the incomparable Sinead Cusack, who plays Eleanor, a professor of literature, and later her daughter Esme, a flower child turned housefrau. Cusack mesmerizes, even when she has no lines, and one cannot help but focus on her, whenever she is on stage. Brian Cox, as Max, the blustering patriarch and avowed, determined Communist, is also a strong stage presence. Rufus Sewell, as the Czech visitor, is less satisfactory initially. A mumbling delivery, complete with fake Czech accent, does not help. But Sewell grows in the role as he ages. And others of the large competent cast more than compensate.

It is true that acoustics of the theatre, plus the rapid-fire British accents and the so-called Czech accent, all add to the difficulties. But if one works at it, having fortified oneself beforehand with a reading of modern Czech history and a fast course in Rock and Roll 101, the rewards are enormous. Hopefully the stages--and particularly that of “Rock ‘n’ Roll”--will soon light up Broadway.

--Irene Backalenick
November 11, 2007

Sign up for our mailing list