Tom Stoppard is sometimes unfairly regarded as a playwright where ideas trump character, but in fact he has a rare ability to create characters who express themselves through the ideas they espouse. From his first success, Rosencrantz and Guilderstern are Dead, to his recent three-play epic of 19th century politics, The Coast of Utopia, he's created densely packed works that make a demand on the audience's attention, but usually he pays back those demands with intellectually charged entertainment full of wit and brio.
The West Coast premiere of his most recent play, Rock ’N' Roll, currently at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, is no exception, though he does make more room for matters of the human heart, almost to the point of sentimentality.
Rock ’N' Roll takes place over a span of 25 years, and flips back and forth in setting from the Cambridge home of Marxist professor Max (Jack Willis) to the ramshackle Prague apartment of his student, Jan (Manoel Felciano). Jan returns to Czechoslovakia just as the Russians invade in 1968, and is drawn into the dissident underground through the persecution of the rock band Plastic People of the Universe, despite being an apolitical music lover. Meanwhile Max stubbornly defends his Marxist ideals in the West. The juxtaposition of the two characters' paths double and reflect each other, sometimes in unexpected ways. Max's wife Eleanor (Rene Augesen) is slowly dying of cancer, and in the most wrenching emotional scene of the play has an argument with her husband about body, mind and love. Stoppard is at his best here, fusing ideas and emotions until they can't be extricated from each other.
Though Max is a rigid ideologue, he has many of the best lines in the play, and his character keeps the piece from turning into another example of baby boomer self-congratulation. It's typical of his keen dramatic instinct that Stoppard supplies the sharpest zingers to the character that he has the least in common with politically.
Willis does a fine job of expressing both the bluster and the wounded pride of the professor, giving sympathy to a character that could easily come off as a bore. Manoel Felciano does a splendid job of portraying Jan with a combination of irony and naïveté, and as his older self gives a good impression of the oppressive weight the years have taken from him.
All the minor characters are just as fine as the principals, especially James Carpenter's darkly witty turn as a Czech secret policeman. Carey Perloff's direction keeps the piece moving, even through the thickets of talk that Stoppard's known for. Rock ’N' Roll feeds both heart and head in equal measure.