As the world turns

Revolutions and Rock 'n' Roll in Tom Stoppard's latest philosophical epic
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Jud Williford and Manoel Felciano Czech in
Photo by kevin Berne

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REVIEW American Conservatory Theater's season opener marks the 40-year anniversary of 1968 with the well-timed if less than well-executed Bay Area premiere of Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll, which from the dual vantage points of Prague and Cambridge traces revolutionary politics and counterculture between 1968's Prague Spring and 1989's Velvet Revolution.

Stoppard's latest but not greatest is almost a 20th-century coda to his grand three-part saga of 19th-century revolutionaries, The Coast of Utopia, building on the famed playwright's ongoing interest in politics, media, culture, private vs. public life, and the motor of social change. But it's also, by his account, a more personal play he'd long been considering, based partly on his own history as a Czech World War II refugee who settled happily into English life at a tender age.

Rock 'n' Roll's protagonist — and Stoppard's stand-in — is Jan (a genial Manoel Felciano), a visiting exchange student at Cambridge. Within the familial embrace of hardheaded, hard-line Communist don Max (Jack Willis) and his wife, cancer-racked classics scholar Eleanor (René Augesen), Jan revels wholeheartedly in English life and '60s counterculture — particularly its music. For Jan — whose LP collection is like a precious extension of his own person — tracks from the Velvet Underground, Pink Floyd, and the Doors are the stuff of revelation and ecstatic community. But unlike the playwright — and despite his antipathy to stifling Soviet bloc authoritarianism — Jan returns home to Prague in 1968 after Soviet tanks roll in.

The rest of the play cuts back and forth as life goes on, with Max twice fatefully visiting an increasingly cornered Jan in the interim. In Cambridge, the seeds of the '60s blossom in ways bleak and hopeful, shadowed by the gentle but tragic presence (offstage) of original Pink Floyd frontperson and madcap Cambridge denizen Syd Barrett, here a Pan-like figure inspiring the protective devotion of Max and Eleanor's flower child daughter, Esmé (Summer Serafin and René Augesen), and later Esmé's own radical teenage offspring, Alice (Serafin). In Prague, meanwhile, Jan and friends negotiate two distinct realms of opposition: the embattled dissident movement headed by Václav Havel and others, and a countercultural rock underground of disaffected youth that, despite its so-called apolitical stance, is inherently political and threatening to a totalitarian regime bent on monopolizing the social sphere.

Despite a critical edge — brought out, for example, in Max's admirable rant against the compromises of a supposedly free press — Jan's and the play's embrace of Western liberalism casts a vague "end of ideology" tone, as if Margaret Thatcher's declaration that "there is no alternative" was correct, however crude and ruthless the messenger. But the real problem with the play is its lack of sustained tension. Helmed by artistic director Carey Perloff, the production pursues an impressive visual dimension but often falls dramatically flat. Rare exceptions include a scene in Cambridge in which Max's crude materialism — and cruder clinging to his CP card and shopworn shibboleths — runs up against the most personal of rebukes: his beloved wife's diseased, disintegrating body, which she movingly denies can encompass her identity and humanity. Company member Augesen does fine work here, as well as in the role of grown-up daughter Esmé. By contrast, the normally brilliant Willis feels miscast as Max. He's just not a very convincing Englishman, and the attempt is both disappointing and distracting.

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