EmptyBernard B. Jacobs Theatre, New York
It seems appropriate that the scenes in Tom Stoppard's new play are introduced by snippets of classic rock songs.
A sprawling depiction of the intertwined lives of various characters affected by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, "Rock 'n' Roll" feels more like the theatrical equivalent of a collection of hit singles than a cohesive concept album.
Yet, this being Stoppard after all, there is much to savor along the way. While the lengthy comedy drama is ultimately too diffuse to have the emotional impact it strives for, it well displays the rare intelligence and sophisticated humor for which the playwright is renowned.
Now arrived on Broadway after hit engagements at London's Royal Court and West End, the play is well timed to capitalize on the smash New York success of last year's "Coast of Utopia" trilogy at Lincoln Center.
Spanning the years 1968-90, "Rock 'n' Roll" centers on the shifting fortunes of Jan (Rufus Sewell), who when first seen is a young Czech student studying at Cambridge under the tutelage of Max (Brian Cox), university professor and unabashed Marxist. Jan becomes very close to Max's family, including his wife, Eleanor (Sinead Cusack), an academic specializing in the writings of Sappho; and his flower-child, pot-smoking daughter, Esme (Alice Eve), who has a crush on him.
Returning to his native city of Prague after finishing his studies, Jan tries to live his life under the Soviet occupation. Initially optimistic, he quickly runs afoul of the state authorities and is arrested for dissidence, stemming in no small part from his obsession for rock music, particularly the subversive homegrown band Plastic People of the Universe.
The rest of the highly episodic play tracks the shifting fortunes of Jan and his friends -- including the equally music-obsessed Ferdinand (Stephen Kunken) -- and the philosophical and personal struggles of Max as he copes with his wife's terminal cancer and his growing disillusionment with the communist regime.
As usual, Stoppard's dialogue is dense and filled with explanatory speeches that often are more intellectually than dramatically stimulating. In this case, it's safe to say that those unfamiliar with Czech and British political history of the past several decades might find themselves at a loss to keep up with the often confusing plot.
And though many individual scenes resonate with dramatic and comic force, the overall narrative has a frustratingly sketchy and unsatisfying feel.
Still, the rewards of the play are substantial, and they are fully realized in Trevor Nunn's skillfully staged and beautifully acted production. Besides fluidly delineating the numerous scenic and time changes, it also conveys the play's emphasis on the emotional impact of pop music by prefacing each scene with snatches of iconic rock songs, complete with projections detailing their lineage (date of recording, session players, etc.).
The lead performers, reprising their roles from the London production, are all superb, with Sewell in particular amazingly convincing in his depiction of his character's emotional and physical transformation over the course of three decades.
ROCK 'N' ROLL
A Royal Court Theatre London production
Presented by Boy Boyett & Sonia Friedman Prods., Ostar Prods., Roger Berlind, Tulchin/Barnter/Douglas G. Smith, Dancap Prods., Jam Theatricals and the Weinstein Co. in association with Lincoln Center Theater
Playwright: Tom Stoppard
Director: Trevor Nunn
Set designer: Robert Jones
Costume designer: Emma Ryott
Lighting designer: Howard Harrison
Sound designer: Ian Dickinson
Max: Brian Cox
Eleanor/Esme (older): Sinead Cusack
Jan: Rufus Sewell
Lenka: Nicole Ansari
Stephen: Brian Avers
Gillian/Magda: Mary Bacon
Esme (younger)/Alice: Alice Eve; the Piper/Policeman: Seth Fisher: Ferdinand: Stephen Kunken
Interrogator/Nigel: Quentin Mare
Milan/Waiter: Ken Marks
Candida: Alexandra Neil
Pupil: Anna O'Donoghue