Rock ‘n’ Roll

Now playing at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on Broadway.

Before this, I’d never seen one of Tom Stoppard’s plays performed, only read them on my own, and to be honest, reading them is easier. Stoppard’s text is so dense, packed with philosophical ideas, debates on determinism and free will, romanticism and classicism, materialism and consciousness, and—always—Truth with a capital T, and it isn’t so overwhelming if you can keep the words in front of you, to reread and parse and ponder at your leisure.

That said, watching the text brought to life is exciting. Seeing the actors helps keep you from bogging yourself down in the concepts and theories and abstracts, for though Stoppard’s plays are intellectually demanding, they can be tender and funny and human, too. His famous debut play, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, wouldn’t be so affecting if it were merely an existential treatise, and his latest, Rock ‘n’ Roll, also expands on its challenging philosophical foundation to tell a vivid, moving story.

The two central characters are Max (Brian Cox), an unapologetically Marxist philosophy professor at Cambridge, and Jan (Rufus Sewell), a Czech Ph.D. student who abruptly leaves the university in 1968 when the Soviet Union cracks down on reforms in Czechoslovakia. Taking only his beloved rock albums, Jan returns to his homeland, hoping, he says, to save his mother and socialism. His mother is OK, but over the following two decades, Jan’s dreams for socialism die. In a series of vignettes, we see his troubles in Czechoslovakia and also return periodically to Cambridge, where Max is stubbornly defending his continued membership in the Communist party; his wife, Eleanor, is struggling with cancer; and their flower child daughter, Esme, is dealing with the tribulations of the ’60s and ’70s in her own way.

Writing that out, I can’t quite see how it all hangs together (I haven’t even mentioned Eleanor’s expertise in the classical Greek poet Sappho; Jan’s dissident friend Ferdinand and his many petitions; Max’s colleague Lenka, a Czech expatriate with an interest in the mystical; Jan’s obsession with an underground Czech band, the Plastic People of the Universe; and Esme’s innocent adoration of Syd Barrett, one of the founding members of Pink Floyd and her personal Pan), yet somehow, hang together it all does. Stoppard weaves his many knotty but colorful threads into a brilliant tapestry about ideals and reality, nonconformity and resistance, the physical and the mystical, poetry and rock ‘n’ roll, loyalty and love.

The cast—most of whom originated their roles at the Royal Court Theatre in London last year—is universally strong. Brian Cox is a bit over-gruff as Max, but he dramatizes the man’s intelligence and familial devotion beautifully, even when (perhaps especially when) the character’s self-righteousness is hard to bear. Sinead Cusack plays both Eleanor and Esme in her later years, and the way she captures the passionate Eleanor’s emotions without shortchanging her intellect is extraordinarily powerful. In a key first-act monologue, the cancer-ridden Eleanor furiously rebuts Max’s cool contention that the brain is just a machine. Removing her wig and baring her mastectomy and hysterectomy scars, she attacks Max’s materialist philosophy with every arrow in her arsenal, intellectual and emotional, universal and personal, and her final roar—“I am not my body! My body is nothing without me!”—would have been heartbreaking were it not so empowered.

But most memorable is Rufus Sewell, who plays Jan. It’s a tricky part: Jan has a whimsical, often childlike demeanor, exemplified by his giddy enthusiasm for rock music, so he sometimes seems like a lightweight next to the ferociously cerebral Max or the dedicated dissident Ferdinand. Yet Jan, too, is sharp and observant—often more astute in analyzing the state of Czechoslovakia than his compatriots—and Sewell captures his multifaceted personality with a deft, increasingly subtle performance. That performance has a striking physical component as well, for Jan’s hardships under the Communist regime take their toll. By the conclusion of the play in 1990, the once-youthful Jan stands with a slight stoop and walks with a shuffle. The transformation is unsettling, but even as Sewell embodies those changes, he maintains Jan’s effervescence and good humor and gives him a new secret quirk of a smile.

That smile reflects the hopefulness of Rock ‘n’ Roll: the belief that even apathetic Plastic People can be revolutionaries; the assurance that a country can move from the crackdown on Prague Spring to the Velvet Revolution in a generation; the conviction that, whether love is just a chemical reaction in the machine of the brain or not, it can make life worth living. And after all the philosophizing has ended, after the Iron Curtain has fallen, we have the Rolling Stones’ 1990 performance in Prague, with Jan and Esme in ecstatic attendance. It’s a charming conclusion to a challenging play—a conclusion that surely wouldn’t have been nearly so special on the page without actors to bring it to such joyous life.