- The Washington Times - Friday, May 1, 2009

What is ultimately more subversive than revolution? Rock ‘n’ roll.

Playwright Tom Stoppard gives anarchy a righteous beat in his sublime play “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” which melds his love of wordplay, cerebral characters and rock music of the 1960s and ‘70s. Pink Floyd fans rejoice! There’s finally a play for dark side of the mooners, with some Doors, Stones, Velvet Underground, Beach Boys, Grateful Dead and Syd Barrett (for all you purists out there) thrown in for good measure.

Music is freedom, music is sex, music is politics in Mr. Stoppard’s play, presented with white heat and tenderness by director Joy Zinoman at Studio Theatre. The production is a feast for the senses — the beauty of the language will make you weep, the look of the show captures the chaotic adrenaline rush of a live concert, the music will prick up your ears, and the acting by the 17-member cast is something to be long savored.

Set designer Russell Metheny reconfigures the Milton Theatre into a theater in the round, with the audience on all sides. This intimate setting allows full access to Mr. Stoppard’s wise, witty dialogue and soaring speeches as well as to the exotic pathways of his far-flung interests.

At its core, “Rock ‘n’ Roll” is about love, but the play also delves into the Prague Spring, Vaclav Havel and the Velvet Revolution, Czech leaders Alexander Dubcek and Gustav Husak, communism loyalists, Greek poetry and, of course, rock music (including the Czech dissident underground rock group the Plastic People of the Universe). A master’s degree in Eastern European history and literature is not required to enjoy the play, but you might want to read up (and listen up) a bit beforehand.

The play goes between Cambridge and Prague in the intertwining stories of the academic, ivory-tower communist Max (Ted van Griethuysen) and a Czech intellectual and reserved revolutionary, Jan (Stafford Clark-Price). Spanning 1968 to 1990, “Rock ‘n’ Roll” charts the erosion of the Soviet empire, which fascinates, but its power lies not in political upheaval. It is Mr. Stoppard’s brave and piercing exploration of the persistence of love and grief, which reaches its height in the emotionally gratifying second act.

The movement from head to heart is deftly conveyed by the cast, in particular Mr. van Griethuysen as the academic brute Max and Lisa Harrow as his Greek-scholar wife, Eleanor, a gravely ill woman battling for her life and for her husband’s attention and compassion. Her performance was so strong that audience members burst into applause when she told a flirty rival (the live-wire Caroline Bootle) hands off Max until she’s out of the picture and evoked sniffles in the scenes where she embodied bravery and aching fragility.

Mr. Clark-Price’s Jan is amiable — and something of a cipher. More tangible charisma would have been welcome because what happens is that the scenes in Prague seem pallid in contrast to the domestic unrest taking place in Cambridge with Max and Eleanor and, later, their at-loose-ends adult daughter, Esme (also played by Miss Harrow).

Yet the imbalance of power is minor in a play and a production that is both intellectually dexterous and heartfelt. This is drama you can dance to.

★★★★

WHAT: “Rock ‘n’ Roll” by Tom Stoppard

WHERE: Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW

WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Through June 7.

TICKETS: $45 to $61

PHONE: 202/332-3300

WEB SITE: www.studiotheatre.org

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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