Related Articles: Theater, All

Review: 'Rock ’n’ Roll'

San Jose Stage cast handles everything Tom Stoppard can throw at them in the dense ‘Rock ’n’ Roll’

MY GUESS IS Tom Stoppard is well past the point in his career when anyone’s going to say, “Gee, Tom, this looks good, but it could use some serious editing.” Especially when the subject is something as obviously close to the heart as the political fate of his native Czechoslovakia. Wait, one might ask, isn’t Stoppard’s Rock ’n’ Roll about—rock & roll? Yup, that too, and that’s another very personal subject Stoppard has packed into the action of his 2006 work. He tries to find the intersection of these two obsessions, using a blazing trail of rock-music history and Czech politics to fuel the play’s underlying debate over whether revolution is political or cultural, personal or collective.

That’s all fine and good, but I would recommend studying up on the history of socialism in Czechoslovakia from the 1968 Soviet invasion to the 1989 Velvet Revolution—the time span of the story—before tackling the first third of San Jose Stage’s new production. Reading the background notes in the program will probably do, but there’s a lot of detail Stoppard has worked into the dialogue, and so much, of course, that he couldn’t. The music, too, requires some background knowledge. I was lucky, since the main musical focus is on cult-rock figure Syd Barrett, one of my favorites. But for instance, those who don’t that know Roger Waters and David Gilmour wrote “Wish You Were Here” as a tribute to Pink Floyd’s mad former frontman in the 1970s will miss out on a shiver-inducing moment near the middle of Rock ’n’ Roll, when the song is played.

The thing about San Jose Stage’s production, however, is that it fairly quickly breaks through the ice that is Stoppard’s deep sociopolitical subconscious. As the action shifts between Prague and Cambridge, the great performances by Jonathan Rhys Williams as rock-loving-but-politically-waffling dissident Jan, Ayla Yarkut as Eleanor (and also her daughter, Esme, who believes “the piper” Syd Barrett—another cloaked Floyd reference—has appeared in her back yard to sing to her) and Julian López-Morillas as die-hard British socialist Max bring out the emotion lying just under the surface of Stoppard’s setup. Yarkut in particular is incredible as the tightly controlled Eleanor, who after a long battle with cancer, finally melts down in a fight with her husband, Max. (Maggie Mason, who plays the younger version of Esme, as well as Esme’s daughter, Alice, is also quite good.)

At that point, the play demands your attention. By the second act, all cylinders are firing in the dialogue and plotting, and Rock ’n’ Roll jumps from fascinating to sublime. The personal relationships all come to a head in one dinner scene, and while the political implications are still being tossed around, it’s the emotional connections that matter. San Jose Stage Company’s production is all the more memorable for staying true to the heart of Rock ’n’ Roll.

ROCK ’N’ ROLL, a San Jose Stage Company production, plays Wednesday–Thursday at 7:30pm, Friday–Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through March 7 at The Stage, 490 S. First St., San Jose. Tickets are $28–$45. (408.283.7142)