While I’ve written several times about plays on this site, I have to emphasize that I’m not pretending to be a theater critic by any means. In my opinion, being a good critic requires some extensive background on the subject at hand, background which might offer a broad perspective and context and therefore greater authority for analyzing a single work of art. All that in mind, I’m a theater-goer, not a theater critic, and whatever I write here should be taken as such.
So take it with a grain of salt when I say that I loved everything about the new production of Tom Stoppard’s Rock’N'Roll at the Studio Theatre in Washington, DC — everything, that is, except the play itself.
I’ve never seen nor read a Stoppard play before, I’ll admit it, but Tara and I went to this show with high expectations. Peter Marks at the Washington Post had given the production a rave review, and when I posted a quick status update on Facebook that we were going to see it, several friends piped up with envy and encouragement, touting it as one of Stoppard’s best and asking that we update them about how it was.
Update we did, and what follows here is a version of an email I’d sent to all who asked:
Stoppard's play was occasionally as opaque as this image from the Studio's production
I have to admit, I’ve never read Stoppard — and didn’t know this play at all except from a quick description and the Post review — but I’m intrigued to hear all the enthusiasm for it. Not that I wasn’t impressed by the play; the acting, staging, etc. were all top-notch. But I recognized quickly how lost I would’ve been by all of it if I hadn’t reviewed the chronology of historic events that was included in the program and if I didn’t already know at least a little something about Czech history, etc. Even with looking through some of that, Tara said she was almost completely lost at some points and felt that the political talk overshadowed the personal interactions.
“Too intellectual at the expense of the story” was her verdict, and while I was more generous toward it, I could see what she meant. The story of the two lovers seemed like backdrop to the debate, and I didn’t really feel like we had a real sense of any attraction between them, much less love; while it had been mentioned that she’d offered him her virginity years before, for example, I didn’t get the sense that that adequately indicated the foundation of a love that would span decades of absence.
That said, I still admired it all, and as someone who’s trying to weave together the political and the personal in my own novel-eternally-in-progress — AND trying to navigate time in interesting, productive ways — it was interesting to see some of the techniques Stoppard used here and how it all worked.
As a follow-up to that quick email, I’ve reread Marks’ review in the Post and see that he embeds a couple of warning words/phrases in there to alert folks what to expect: “thinking man’s play” is one; “exotic, even opaque” another. While I don’t at all think that playwrights or any writers should pander to audiences, I do think that there’s something potentially amiss when a primer on Czech history and Marxist theory seems a prerequisite for accessing a play. And I know that other plays we’ve seen have handled potentially obscure subject matter with a greater sense of easing the audience into it: Moisés Kaufman’s 33 Variations at Arena (and now nominated for Tony on Broadway) comes to mind among recent plays, with its glimpse into a minor work of Beethoven’s, and Tara mentioned Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen as well in this regard and I recall fondly David Auburn’s Proof several years ago.
Again, I speak here not as a trained critic but just as an audience member, but in my opinion, what it boils down to is a question of balance and of how well a playwright invites us into his or her world. Even in a play of ideas or a novel of ideas, it’s the people, the characters, that should come first; Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being jumps to mind here — another work which deals with a love story and with Czech politics/history and with some pretty dense philosophy, and yet which engages readers (at least this one) on a emotional level as well as an intellectual one. Stoppard had the opportunity to do the same thing, and for some viewers, that may have been the experience; in his review of Rock’N'Roll, Marks writes that in Act Two, “the effect of Rock’N'Roll migrates fully from the head to the heart.” But neither Tara nor I fully felt that “migration” — a necessary one, I think, for the success of the play. No fault of the production but of the script itself, in my opinion.
In short, we weren’t just stumped by Stoppard, but occasionally stopped short by his choices, even as we admired the ambitious nature of what he was trying to do.