PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Rock 'n' Roll—Discs 'n' Dissidents

Opening Night   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Rock 'n' Roll—Discs 'n' Dissidents
When the curtain rose Nov. 4 at the Jacobs Theatre on the new Tom Stoppard play — a three-hour ideological jig he deemed to dub Rock 'n' Roll — you could almost hear a heady little horse-laugh from the author in the wings. The image that greets the audience is that of the first rocker, the great god Pan, sprawled out on a garden wall playing his flute for a susceptible blonde damsel below. How's that for getting to the roots of rock 'n' roll!

"I can't remember what I was thinking when I came up with that," Sir Tom confessed at the after-party at Angus McIndoe's, keeping his secrets. If you are to believe this blonde flower-child, Esme (played as a teenager by Alice Eve in Act I and as a grown woman by Sinead Cusack in Act II), this hallucinatory Pan she thinks she sees is her Cambridge neighbor, Syd Barrett, the Pink Floyd founder who dropped out of the fast-track rock life and became a country recluse. He's a haunting figure that hovers over this epic drama.

Essentially, Stoppard is melding revolutions here — both musical and political —showing how "socially negative music" provided the soundtrack for social change in the 1960s.

The play is a slow pan, if you will, of 22 years in 15 scenes, punctuated by blasts of pop - group rock 'n' roll for transitions, zigzagging between Cambridge and Prague (both home turfs for the playwright), from the spring of 1968 when a reform movement aimed at creating "socialism with a human face" in Prague was crushed by Soviet tanks to 1990 when the Communist party falls in the Soviet Union. The focus is on the disparate fates of two men — Esme's father, Max (Brian Cox), who preaches the joys of Communism at Cambridge, and his Czech protege, Jan (Rufus Sewell), who ill-advisedly returns home.

Max was born under a Red star — in October 1917, the very month of the Bolshevik revolution — and that was, of course, the event that Stoppard was foreshadowing in his nine-hour, three-play juggernaut of last season, The Coast of Utopia. Is Rock 'n' Roll the inevitable sequel? "I didn't think of it like that," he confessed, turning the notion over slowly in his head, "but, looking at it now, I guess you could say 'Yeah.'"

No stranger to epic scale (albeit, to a different type of tune: Cats, Les Misérables, Oklahoma!), director Trevor Nunn pumps up the volume of intellectual bombasts to rock regulation, and the political rants keep flying like ideological thunderbolts. There was, he allowed, some fine-tuning for this country. "Not a great deal," he said. "There were some small changes, but, really, I think anybody who had seen it in England and watched it again tonight would be very hard-put to tell you what the changes were. "The special problems that America presented was that the story of Czechoslovakia and, particularly the revolution, played bigger in England than it did here because it's that much closer and that much more immediate — that much more sort of a European story.

"There's a large number of people in England who roughly know about it, and it's not so well-known here, so we had to be very, very careful about our clarity. The play does discuss Communism as a system, both its merits and demerits, and that's quite hard to do in America because of the McCarthy history and the Reagan judgment. That plays strongly here, almost to the point where it's hard to separate the theories from those judgments."

Sewell, who was born at the time the play begins, raked in all manner of awards for his moving portrayal of the doused firebrand (the Evening Standard, Critics' Circle and Olivier awards) and is well-positioned for a new harvest over here.

It must feel comforting to return to Broadway — for the first time since his debut here in Translations 12 years ago — in a proven winner, "but then you don't really spend too much time feeling wonderful," he noted. "It becomes a matter of trying to maintain what you were doing over there. It has been an extraordinary experience, the whole thing. The great thing is to be able to do it again in a different country."

He plays the part on dual speeds, separated by an intermission. He has the mien of a man who has been crushed by totalitarianism and lost the political spark and passion of his youth. He's not readily recognizable because of glasses and some hair trick. "Actually, I send in another actor to get on with it," he laughs. "I'm never going to divulge my secrets."

Where did he pick up his accent? "Prague," of all logical places. In the dozen years between his Broadway gigs, he has developed into a perpetually employed film actor. "I've worked a lot in Prague. That's where Americans tend to make films if they want to save a little bit of cash. I suppose that I've done six movies there, so the accent was easy for me." So, too, he insisted, was the bombastic arguments of the first act. "The play gives you a lot of energy. It gives as much as it takes."

Cox's booming voice gets a thorough workout as well. He is energized by the demands of his role, he claimed: "It's an epic, really, and because you go through so many time changes, you've got to kind of reignite it again and again and again. It's tough. There is very little time to rest and gather strength. If I'm off stage, I'm changing clothes or wigs."

Nicole Ansari (Mrs. Cox in real life) plays the flirty, flinty Lenka, who fades away into the sunset with the elderly Max. "We love working together," she said. "This is not the first time, either. To have chemistry on stage, then go home together — on a happy note — it's like we're having a date six days of the week. Some people don't like to work together. I absolutely love it. I don't get self-conscious. I only feel he's helpful and great."

She owes the part to her real-life role, in point of fact: "Brian asked me to read the play, and I read it in terms of his character. I loved the play completely, and I fell in love with this character, Lenka. It was love at first sight, to be honest. I think she's smart and an intellectual, but at the same time she's found that what she needs is freedom. And, while I was working on her, I noticed that I was becoming freer, and I had to become free in order to play her. She totally opened up so many alleys for me."

Cox, a Scot and proud of it, was feeling pretty free himself in a kilt. "This particular kilt," explained his wife, "has our colors that we designed together. There was no Cox family pattern, so what we did was create this and patented it. Now there is a Cox traditional kilt."

Brian's son, Alan Cox, who made his Broadway debut earlier this year in the role Sewell originated in a Manhattan Theatre Club revival of Translations, made his dad's opening.

Sinead Cusack, as Cox's cancer-doomed first wife, has an emotionally shattering scene in the first act where she rages against her husband's materialism and her ravaged body.

"Yes, it's hard-ISH," Cusack conceded, "but I love doing it. The great thing is that I die in the first act and I'm rejuvenated in the second act. If it were the other way around, it would be quite different, I think."

Conspicuously missing in action was her husband, Jeremy Irons, who won his Tony for an earlier Stoppard (The Real Thing). "He's in Santa Fe filming with Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen — which is sad, but there you go . . ."

Alice Eve, supposedly Sewell's main squeeze if the London tabs are to be believed, is the fifth Brit brought over from the original English company. She's double-cast as teenagers in different time zones. "I'm the comic relief, which I love to be," she said. "I love playing them. I think that I inject joy into the play." She plans to split in December because of prior commitments back home, but the rest of the cast will stay put till March.

The also double-cast Mary Bacon, who's married to Primary Stage exec Andrew Leynes, is one of the eight Yanks hired here to complete the cast. It's a smooth Anglo-American blend, accent-wise. "That's because they are so professional and generous," Bacon proffered. "They love what they're doing, and they respect American actors immediately. You felt that the first day, and that was very exciting for us." The British have done quite well with Stephen Kunken of late — Peter Morgan's Frost/Nixon last season, Stoppard this season. "I owe my whole career right now to Brits," he trilled. "Tom's language is like doing a Shakespeare play. It makes those demands. Then, you add on top of that these heightened emotions. It's bigger in scope than most plays. It's not a small living-room play where three or four characters just sorta talk over the course of an evening. This is a big, big undertaking. For an actor, it's like doing a classical piece of work."

Ken Marks is double-cast as a Secret Service man in Act I and a waiter in Act II. "There are people who think, 'Is that the same guy? Did he get knocked down a few pegs so that he comes out as a waiter at the end?'" he hooted. "Actually, they give me a mustache to throw it off a little bit, maybe confuse people some."

His euphoria over the frenetic rehearsal period was characteristic of the American additions: "Tom once sat us down and talked about his play for two-and-a-half hours — just the first act — and it was unbelievable. And, Trevor gave some notes to us the other day that were just inspiring — just thrilling — thoughtful and exciting. We barely had any rehearsals — only about ten rehearsals — but it has been a pretty amazing experience."

The real-life reference-point in attendance at the opening was Pink Floyd's Roger Waters, who had three or four of his songs wash by during the evening. "I saw the play before at the Royal Court in London and loved it," he said. "I think it's very moving. Of course, I lived through that particular bit of Cambridge history. I'd never met Tom until I saw the play. We had dinner afterward, and we have since become good friends."

The platoon of producers glittered up the evening with casts from various shows around town — Curtains (David Hyde Pierce, Karen Ziemba, Jill Paice, Michael McCormick), The Seafarer (Jim Norton, Sean Mahon, Conleth Hill) and Is He Dead? (Patricia Conolly, David Pittu).

There were also an inordinate amount of directors in attendance, two of whom owe their Tonys to Stoppard — Jack O'Brien (the Utopia trilogy and The Invention of Love) and Mike Nichols (The Real Thing) with, of course, Diane Sawyer. Arriving late was David Leveaux, who did the revivals of Stoppard's Jumpers and The Real Thing).

The Seafarer's Conor McPherson and Is He Dead?'s Michael Blakemore bopped by from their previews. Julie Taymor, with Oscar-winning composer-husband Elliot Goldenthal, was bracing for next Sunday's big 10th anniversary bash for her The Lion King and, much farther down the line, her Spider-Man musical.

Taking Sides director David Jones, who got terrific reviews in August for the Williamstown revival of the seldom-seen Lillian Hellman play, The Autumn Garden, has high hopes to redo that for Broadway. "I can hang them all together if I can get the spot," he said of the cast, which includes Allison Janney, Jessica Hecht, John Benjamin Hickey, Mamie Gummer, Brian Kerwin and Maryann Plunkett. Jones just returned to the London stage after a 12-year absence, directing David Suchet in The Last Confession. "I'm going to do that at the Ahmanson in January of '09 — and it may come here after that." It's the play that asks the question: "Was the Pope murdered in 1978?"

Joe Dowling was in from The Guthrie in Minneapolis, basking in some glowing notices he got for directing Brian Friel's most recent play, The Home Place, with Simon Jones. "The reviews were really good," he admitted. "The play should be seen. It's terrific."

Terence Rigby and Ian McShane found themselves on the same floor. Both made their Broadway debuts 40 years ago — McShane in The Promise with Ian McKellen and Eileen Atkins, Rigby in the original Tony-winning version of the play McShane is now reviving: The Homecoming. Rigby just finished a Faye Dunaway flick called "Flick."

Other first-nighters included Betsy Aidem, James Pickens Jr. of "Gray's Anatomy," Liz Callaway (set for the Metropolitan Room Nov. 20-Dec. 2), Claudia Shear (in platform shoes!), Lauren Bacall, David Ives, Eve Best, Kathryn Erbe, Ben Chaplin, Laurie Anderson and The Velvet Underground's Lou Reed.

All three floors of Angus McIndoe's were packed to the gills — sardine-standing for everybody — and some of the crowd spilled out onto the street where tables were set up to accommodate the overflow. Nobody started a revolution, though.

The cast of <i>Rock 'n' Roll</i> takes their opening night bows.
The cast of Rock 'n' Roll takes their opening night bows. Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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