When I look back at my favorite plays, I’m often fuzzy on the details, but most of all, I remember a feeling. For Broadway’s revival of Awake and Sing a few years ago, the feeling was a slowly breaking heart of a family falling apart in spite of their tightly clenched fists, hiding a loyal guarded love. History Boys was a feeling of lively razor-sharp wit with a cruel twist. The beauty of plays lies in its transparency, where a tenuous naked world is woven with no music or dancing to hide behind. If a play is successful, I get sucked into its world and get lost in it without realizing it. At American Conservatory Theater’s Rock ‘n’ Roll, the bottom line is that I waited the entire play but never got lost in its world. Spanning the time period of the 1960′s through the 1990′s, going from England to war torn Czechoslovakia with ideals of Marxism and a love of rock and roll in a tumultuous world, the play follows the lead character Jan and the people in his life. Rock ‘n’ Roll was a theatrical spinning merry-go-round, where I was on the outskirts looking in, waiting to get on. But it never stopped to allow me to get on. If I focused hard enough, I would catch glimpses – a witty crack here, a satiric jab at society there, a flash of fiercely tender humanity and love. But in general, things were a blur as the play would march on, wrapped up in its own world with no regard for its audience.
I hardly think I was alone in this sentiment. In general, the audience was a very quiet audience, stunned even in dark scene changes to make the effort at applause. Laughs were more laughs of recognition (“Oh, I actually understood that joke“) rather than genuine merriment. A few rows behind me, there was a woman who was laughing quite loudly and proudly a little too long each time, as if to broadcast her comprehension of what was just said.
She was mostly laughing alone, I might add, in a completely silent theater. I am reminded of a NY Times article on another one of Tom Stoppard’s plays, his gargantuan Coast of Utopia, in which the journalist writes about an audience’s reluctance to admit that they don’t get Tom Stoppard. In an article titled, “â€˜Utopiaâ€™ Is a Bore. There, I Said It.”:
Some may fear, as my new acquaintance from the plaza did, that to admit dissatisfaction or outright dislike is to advertise oneâ€™s intellectual obtuseness or philistinism. The coercive reasoning goes something like this: Everyone says itâ€™s brilliant; I am bored; therefore I am not smart enough to appreciate its brilliance. The play isnâ€™t a failure: I am.
Perhaps it’s because I haven’t been exposed to Tom Stoppard’s writing before, but I have no qualms about saying that I did not understand Rock ‘n’ Roll. My friend immediately deemed it elitist and blatantly exclusive of its audience, and it’s hard not to disagree with her. It’s never a good sign if there are nine pages of program notes that go along with this play, including a time line of relevant history (rock ‘n’ roll, American, and world history) which is basically a requirement to see this play; without having memorized it, I was left wondering who Dubcek and Havel were that the actors kept referring to. If I had understood it, I may have said that this was a brilliant play. Yes, there were moments of smart writing with a core of humanity and loving relationships, but most of it was smothered by a perplexing blur.
My reservations about this play were inherent in the play itself, and not in the production. Directed by ACT’s Carey Perloff, the cast was superb with lots of local homegrown talent. The cast was led by San Francisco native Manoel Felciano as Jan, a rather reserved role that failed to showcase Felciano’s talent and charisma. Rene Augesen as Eleanor/older Esme and Jack Willis as Max were the standouts in this cast, where both actors injected a dose of much needed liveliness to the play. The set design by Douglas W. Schmidt, as shown in the photo above, was imaginative albeit puzzling – the bottom up view was never used literally, and I was left wondering, was it designed to give a sense of open sky in a claustrophobic view? A sense of dreaming while laying down? A world turned on its side? Who knows, the entire play was a big puzzle but a mildly pleasing one.
Maybe this play is for people who grew up in that era, or for Communists, or for rock ‘n’ roll lovers. Maybe it’s just my luck that I don’t relate directly to any of those topics, but the fatal flaw was that this play did not convince me to care.
Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll plays at ACT until October 18th. Click here for more info.