Stoppard's 'Rock 'n' Roll' lilts at A.C.T.

Tom Stoppard was born in Czechoslovakia in 1937, but his family escaped in 1939 when Nazi Germany invaded the country. Growing up in England — where he became one of the great playwrights of our time — he had little to do with the country of his birth.

In 2006, Stoppard wrote “Rock ‘n’ Roll” as a kind of alternative, “what-if” autobiography, about a Czech-born writer who lives in England, but returns during the 1968 “Prague Spring” — the country’s ultimately failed attempt to loosen the communist rule and regain independence from Moscow.

American Conservatory Theater opened the West Coast premiere of the play, directed by Carey Perloff, on Wednesday night.
As somebody who lived under communist rule and had a part in a quixotic attempt to take on the Red Army (in neighboring Hungary), I am impressed by Stoppard’s portrayal of life in an environment he had not experienced himself. The conflict between practical and moral considerations in a totalitarian society rarely has been treated well in literature or theater.

But even with a topic so close to home, and being a fan of Stoppard, I found my attention lagging at times during the three-hour-long “Rock 'n’ Roll.”

All Stoppard plays are “talky,” but this one turns garrulous, even as it deals with complex issues. The playwright’s usual wit and dazzling use of language are there, but not consistently, and not always convincingly.

The play’s protagonist is Jan, a rock-obsessed writer whose life is split between Cambridge and Prague. Manoel Felciano handles the long, demanding role valiantly, persisting in the character’s emotional ambiguity and realistic vacillation between causes and priorities.

Jack Willis, an American actor with undisguised accent to match, portrays the other major character, Max, a British Cambridge professor, struggling with his lifelong communist ideology against the evidence of Soviet imperialism.

René Augesen portrays the two principal roles of a mother (Eleanor, Max’s wife) and her adult daughter (Esme). Augesen is brilliant in the first role, providing some of the few true emotional high points of the drama, and then she transforms herself into somebody completely different.

Summer Serafin is the irresistible young Esme, later taking another explosive turn as Alice, thus playing her own (Esme’s) daughter, in this dizzyingly complicated story. Anthony Fusco as a Czech security interrogator, and Jud Williford as Jan’s friend in Prague are two more fine performances from the large cast, moved well by Perloff on Douglas W. Schmidt’s imaginative and functional sets.

Rock 'n’ Roll

Where: American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays–Saturdays, except 5 p.m. this Tuesday; 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays; 1 p.m. Sundays; closes Oct. 18
Tickets: $27 to $82
Contact: (415) 749-2228; www.act-sf.org

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