Thursday, February 28, 2008

Rock 'n' Roll

Photo/Joan Marcus

If, as Tom Stoppard mentions in his notes for Rock 'n' Roll, "Dramatists become essayists at their peril," then the good Sir is playing things incredibly safe with his latest play. Or maybe the music that drives his play (and his his semi-autobiographical lead, Jan) has put him in an altered state. You see, there isn't an essay in Rock 'n' Roll, not a single wrong note. What wordy sections remain -- largely lectures between teacher and student in the home of the scholarly (and, given Brian Cox's performance, far too stuffy) Max -- are shaken up, as in The Coast of Utopia, only with less melodrama, and more of a pressing moodiness. We can thank the undercurrent of political repression for that, a dark and shattering presence that Jan (the remarkable, hopefully Tony-winning Rufus Sewell) tries to block out from his bloc of Prague. What the play lacks -- and this is Trevor Nunn's fault as director -- is the theatricality of rock. The fragments of song that play during the blackouts are cheapened by the flimsy typocraphic (putting the crap in typographic) projections of liner notes (unnecessary -- in these moments without words, it's the music that's important), and Robert Jones's revolving set only heightens the text toward the end of Act I, when Jan stands in a sea of shattered records. Only then does the fragile, necessary escapism (turned to revolution) feel complete; the rest of the time, we must rely on Sewell's reedy squeals and fastidious fidgeting to excite us, or on Alice Eve's restless rebellion (first as the young Esme, then as Esme's daughter, Alice) to help us connect with the exceptionally natural text.

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