The title of Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll suggests a rollicking, free-spirited experience that the play, alas, does not deliver. Audiences looking for a nostalgic romp through the musical meadows of their youth are likely to leave the theater wondering how they ended up listening to so many long, dialectical discussions on the relative merits of communism, socialism, and capitalism, so many in-depth historical dissections of Czechoslovakian history, and so many endless references to bands and people they’ve never heard of, particularly an underground Czech-rock group called the Plastic People of the Universe.
The answer, of course, is that Rock ‘n’ Roll is a Tom Stoppard play. Hence it is crammed full of intellectual esoterica and cerebral gamesmanship, and contains so many references to actual historical events—e.g., the Prague Spring of 1968, Charter 77, the Velvet Revolution, Vaclav Havel’s rise to power, the life of Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett, the Rolling Stones’ 1990 concert in Prague—that it practically begs for a fact-checker’s seal of approval. Stoppard even named one of the main characters, Jan (played by Dan Hopman), after Jan Palach, a student who famously set himself on fire in Prague’s Wenceslas Square to protest the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.
It’s no accident that the play, too, begins in 1968. That’s the year the Soviet Union repealed most of the reforms that Czechs had enjoyed until that point, and it’s the year rock ‘n’ roll permanently asserted itself as a cultural force in America and Europe. 1968 is also when Pink Floyd founding member Syd Barrett was kicked out of the band for doing too many drugs, a symbolic moment that represents, in the play, a watershed moment in the annals of artistic freedom. (The Plastic People of the Universe, also a real band, serves the same symbolic purpose.) Sure, Stoppard could have picked the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper as a common reference point that everyone would recognize, but that would have been too easy. Besides, it’s pretty clear Stoppard is a Stones man through and through.
The play takes place between 1968 and 1990, and traverses between households in Cambridge and Prague. Cambridge is the home of an unapologetic communist professor, Max (Peter Moore), and his wife, Eleanor (Jennifer Maren), a classics professor who specializes in Sappho. In Prague, most of the action takes place in a dingy flat rented by Jan, a Czechoslovakian exchange student who was once Max’s prodigy. As the years go by, Max’s opinions about the superiority of communism over capitalism never waiver, but Jan’s convictions morph with the times. He goes from being a communist sympathizer to a student dissident, to a pragmatic half-believer in his native Czechoslovakia, to a dissenter again, and finally to a man at relative peace with his country's halting, hard-won progress.
Though the politics is dense, the play has a humorous streak. One of the running jokes is that Jan and his friend Ferdinand (Brent Doyle) keep trying to get each other to sign petitions, because signing petitions is the only thing they can do to protest their government—other than attend unsanctioned rock concerts, that is. And the over-arching irony in the play is that it begins when the Czech government was officially denouncing the Rolling Stones as a tool of capitalist propaganda, and ends with a Stones concert in Prague—the ultimate act of co-option by the state, but also pretty cool, since Vaclav Havel invited the Stones himself.
Park Square’s production tries mightily to invest Stoppard’s characters with more than two dimensions, but the cast is fighting a wordy, polemical script full of dialogue no human would ever utter. As Max, Peter Moore goes about as far as he can in giving the man some substance beyond his fixed ideology, but it’s an uphill climb. A sample line from Max: “So forget the civil war, the famines, Hitler, American hegemony—it all went wrong when the workers weren’t trusted to manage the workplace. You’re not an anarchist, you’re a utopian. I don’t know why you joined.” Most of Max’s tirades are longer and more obtuse, but you get the idea. There’s a lot of speechifying in this play, and if you’re not the sort of person who enjoys toss-off references to Marxist political theory, ancient poets, and important dates in Eastern Bloc politics, then your enjoyment of Rock ‘n’ Roll is going to be somewhat diminished.
In other words, there isn’t much music. In the play, rock ‘n’ roll is basically a metaphor for freedom, and that’s about it. But once you accept that this isn’t a play about rock music—that it’s a play about what rock used to be—it’s defiant, rebellious spirit—then the lack of actual tunes (except between scene changes) isn’t so puzzling. It’s nice to be reminded every once in a while that the music that has become the soundtrack of our lives was once a potent social and political force, feared by authoritarian regimes the world over. The modern equivalent would be the Internet, I suppose, and the fear of what might happen if, say, the citizens of China had free access to The Daily Beast and Huffington Post—or worse, the blog of an average American teenager.
Rock ‘n’ Roll is a “smart” play, in that lots of ideas are tossed around and the viewpoints of twenty characters (played by 12 actors) must be juggled. Unfortunately, all the extra characters, cerebral gymnastics, and ideological banter have a way of muting the human drama. Max’s wife has cancer, but you would never know it by talking to Max, and Jan’s supposed passion for rock music—to the point of believing that it is the most potent political force in existence—isn’t very convincing. Nor is his love for Max’s daughter, Esme. Dan Hopman’s Jan is too mellow, too contained, so his belief in the reformative power of rock music is hard to accept. Also, the music he plays—Velvet Underground, the Stones, some Pink Floyd—doesn’t sound particularly dangerous anymore. It would have been great to be reminded for real why, once upon a time, the scariest thing on the planet was a Keith Richards guitar riff, but the actual music remains strangely distant—an echo, not a shot.
Tip if you go: Read up on your 20th century Czechoslovakian history. Trust me, a little preparation will go a long way.
Rock ‘n’ Roll continues at Park Square Theatre through Feb. 7.