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rock-n-roll-broadway.bmpSo although August:  Osage County was the centerpiece of my recent theater weekend in New York City, I also managed to catch a couple of other much buzzed-about plays.  First up last Thursday night was the off-Broadway production of Red Bull Theater’s Edward the Second, Christopher Marlowe’s classic play about power and politics, in a new version by the late Garland Wright.  Last Saturday afternoon, I was at Rock n’ Roll, Tom Stoppard’s new play imported to Broadway from the West End, about idealism, nationalism, freedom, and yes, rock and roll told through recent Czech history (from the Soviet invasion to Vaclav Havel’s ascension to power).  Although both plays were interesting and for Rock n’ Roll at least, at times dazzling, I still went through stretches of tedium at both when I felt that shopping at Bergdorf Goodman or getting a pedicure were probably more pleasurable than sitting through the play.

Edward the Second tells the story of gay King Edward the Second whose love for his paramour, Galveston, incensed the British nobility, who could not believe that their nelly sovereign would risk dividing the country for the attentions of a well-hung stud (well, someone should probably have given these British nobles a crash course on what gay boys would do once they hear the words “well-hung”, and believe me, giving up a kingdom would be the least of those).  Red Bull Theatre is an off-off Broadway theater group which has began to raise its profile (its Monday night play readings have attracted the likes of hot, of-the-moment New York theater folks like Michael Cerveris, Mamie Gummer, and former Chicagoan Denis O’Hare), and it really dug in and chomped on this play with gusto, staging it with large performances, a set that looks like an S and M club paying homage to Showgirls, over-the-top leather costumes that must have used up a whole herd of Wyoming cows, and an undeniable gayer-than-a-picnic basket (or at least gayer-than-the-Folsom-Market-street-fair) sensibility.  The direction was bold and the design highly creative and well-executed but I had a big problem with this production’s ”look at me, I am hip and edgy” staging.  It obscured any interesting insights on Marlowe’s themes around power dynamics- the delusions that absolute power creates, the use of sex and sexuality in politics and power plays, and the nature of political leadership.  I also wasn’t terribly impressed with any of the performances, finding them either stilted or languid, except that of Matthew Rauch’s, as the temperamental villain Mortimer, who despite looking like a gay porn star complete with shaved head and, gulp, chest, effectively captured the strong emotions of a nobleman betrayed by a king’s insouciant disregard for the expectations and demands of his throne and his subjects.

I am a fan of Tom Stoppard, and feel that his Real Thing is one of the most perfectly constructed contemporary plays. So I really wanted to like Rock n’ Roll, his latest work about a Czech academic who returns home to Prague when the Soviets invade Czechoslovakia, believing it is the right, most patriotic thing to do, and suffers through thirty years of totalitarian rule. Many observers have noted the intensely personal nature of this play- since Stoppard is a Czech émigré who has lived in the UK since childhood and who has not returned to live in his homeland ever, some of his feelings around the what-could-have-been could possibly be inferred from the text and from the embodiment of the character of Jan, played with enormous appeal and believability in New York, as he did in London, by Rufus Sewell (who was recently Edward Norton’s rival in the movie The Illusionist). As could be expected from Stoppard, there were wonderful writing and characterizations in the play, and eloquent points made about the nature of freedom, the pull of convictions, the transition from idealism to pragmatic disappointment. However all these points were made…and more…talk…and additional…talk; smart, brilliantly written, but sometimes tedious, talk; so much so that at times I felt like I was in three Ph.d classes going on at the same time! Because the topic of freedom is so emotionally fraught, I wanted, well, more emotion, and more heart and guts, more lines like when Jan said he liked being in England because he could drive on the right side of the road, or more scenes like the poignant Act I ender when Jan came back to his apartment in Prague and was devastated to see his record collection destroyed by the Czech secret police because he was friendly with the members of a rock band the state considered subversive. I wanted less cerebral discussion and more emotional moments (I still couldn’t figure out what the lesbian love poems of Sappho had to do with the Soviet occupation). I admired Trevor Nunn, the director’s, use of rock songs from the Rolling Stones, the Velvet Underground, and Pink Floyd, to frame the multi-decade narrative but after the nth Pink Floyd song, I was screaming for some Barbra Streisand to be thrown in there! The cast was uniformly exceptional, especially Sewell and the fabulous Sinead Cusack who played two roles (a mother and her grown-up daughter), but as they were taking their bows at curtain, I felt that the applause was respectful but unengaged, as if the audience just wearily wanted to get it over with. Sometimes too much intellectual calisthenics can be a little bit much.

Photo:  Brian Cox and Rufus Sewell in Rock n’ Roll.

Edward the Second runs till January 27 at the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre, 416, W. 42nd street, New York City.  Rock and Roll closes on March 9 at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th street, New York City.

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