Tom Stoppard is once again taking up his tutorial on political idealism, which began last year with his epic trilogy about 19th-century Russian revolutionaries, "The Coast of Utopia." In "Rock 'n' Roll" he's working on a far more intimate scale, and the Stoppardian polemics are buoyed along by an atmosphere of unexpected sweetness. The play, which just opened in New York, begins in 1968 at Cambridge University, where Max, a professor and card-carrying member of the Communist Party, defends his Marxist ideals, despite the Soviets' crushing of the Dubcek spring in Czechoslovakia. Jan, a Czech graduate student, who parries with Max over the impossibility of those ideals, decides to return to Prague. As the play unfolds over two decades, the scenes shift from Cambridge to Prague and back again. Jan suffers under the hard-line Communist regime—the secret police, the capricious prison sentences—but his mentor Max doesn't bend. He stands behind Marx's maxim—"From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs"—while Jan, who has a Ph.D., is assigned a job in a bakery.
At the heart of the play—with its clever probings of both communism and democracy—is the freedom of rock and roll. Jan's passion for rock, and his prized collection of vinyl, keeps him going—whether he's listening to the Velvet Underground, the Stones, Pink Floyd or, ultimately, the Plastic People of the Universe, a revolutionary Czech band that really existed and wound up in prison. The play's musical interregnums are part of what makes "Rock 'n' Roll" so entertaining and locates the action so precisely in an emotional moment in time.
Yes, there's talk, talk, talk—this is a Stoppard play—but his richly drawn characters don't just yak, they have sex, get mad, rail against the fates and love each other. This production is blessed with the three great stars of the original London staging: Rufus Sewell, who brings a heartbreaking sweetness to Jan; Brian Cox, as the bombastic Max; and the incomparable Sinéad Cusack as Eleanora, Max's brilliant wife who's dying of cancer. In the second half Cusack plays their daughter Esme, now grown up; Alice Eve, as the rebellious teen, Esme, is terrific too. The women characters help give the play its deep humanity. Beneath the brainy bantering there are domestic griefs, fears, sufferings—and unexpected guests for lunch. Intellectual argument may launch the play, but the emotional connection that the teenage Esme makes with Jan, through their shared love of rock music proves stronger: it's the freedom of the soul that no tyrannical regime can take away.