Tom Stoppard’s newest Play Rock and Roll is having its first west coast performances at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. It covers the years 1968 to 1990 from the perspective of Jan a graduate student at Cambridge who returns to his native Czechoslovakia after the Soviets crushed the “The Prague Spring” in 1968. The audience is taken for a wordy – very wordy – trip through each of these years. Jan, who starts out as a collaborator of the repressive Czech regime (we only find this out at the end, by which time you’re likely not to care) ends up as their prisoner and then their garbage. While all this is going on we return repeatedly to the home of the world’s longest surviving communist professor – Max – and his family in Cambridge. Stoppard who left Czechoslovakia when he was two has used his native country and various other passions to make this concoction about freedom, music, politics, repression, and pretension.
Max who enjoys all the fruits of capitalism is given to long speeches about the need for a worker’s government while endlessly disparaging the worker’s judgment for not seeing things his way. Occasionally he says something which he and his fellow players consider clever. His wife Eleanor is dying of breast cancer, she takes all of the long first act to do it and is less interested in materialism than in emotional comfort which Max seems to ration like the fruits of labor. They have a flower child daughter, Esme, who goes to a commune where she gets knocked up by a man who later appears as a shallow journalist, though truth be told everything about the play is shallow. There’s a subplot about Syd Barrett, one of the founders of Pink Floyd which goes nowhere.
There is also another rock band, The Plastic People of the Universe, a Czech group noted for its metaphorical connection to resistance, to Czech repression, and for its poor musicianship. They, like Syd, never appear onstage though there is a lot of talk about them. Rock and roll in general is the symbol of dignity in the face of dictatorship. Late in the play, Jan’s record collection gets tossed out of his apartment window. It would have been better for the audience if it had happened in the first scene.
Stoppard is given to long digressions meant to show how knowledgeable he is about arcana like Sapphic verse. There is also much discussion and playing of a host of rock bands almost all of them unknown to me. The play might mean more to a rock aficionado. The horrors of Czech life continue to assail the audience in the second act, but back in Cambridge Max is older but none the wiser. Esme has returned home with her daughter Alice. Esme is a reformed meathead who is trying in her late thirties to learn something. Alice, on the other hand, is an intellectual whiz who gains early admission to Cambridge while keeping a flame lit for the off-stage Syd Barrett. Why? No reason given. The only character you’re apt to care much about is the doomed Eleanor. There’s also Lenka, another Czech, who was Eleanor’s student and who moves in with Max at the play’s end coincident with Alice running off with Jan. They return to Czechoslovakia where life is finally good and where people can, if they wish, substitute porn for Rock and Roll. If any of this sounds interesting it’s not.
All of this and more, I’ve left out a few characters, take about as long as Lohengrin to perform. If Stoppard could be a little less clever the play could have been over an hour earlier. If you’re interested in the corrosive effects of the loss of freedom under a communist regime see The Lives of Others which is far more effective and shorter even at 137 minutes. There may have been a play in the material Stoppard amalgamated but it’s like a chunk of marble before the sculptor arrived. I think its audience is meant to be people who desperately want to recognize something arch and cultured – clever people.
The worth of the play aside, it was very professionally mounted and performed. The acting was uniformly good. Manoel Felciano managed to appear young at the beginning and middle-aged at the end. Jack Willis, the overfed Max, spouted off with all the pomposity required by the character he was impersonating. René Augesen was quite touching as the cancer stricken Eleanor and later as her mature daughter Esme. Summer Serafin was spaced out as the young Esme and teenage sharp as her daughter Alice. The rest of the cast were all good. The basic set was taken from a photo of an apartment complex. The picture was taken from the ground pointing up. The set put the sky at the stage’s background.
Director Carey Perloff obviously believed in her material and staged the play with as much effectiveness as possible. Why she was so taken with this pretentious melange was not clear to me. San Francisco is likely a good place for this sort of stuff. The audience was full and seemed to appreciate the long evening. There are probably a lot of Max wannabes in the Bay Area.