I would like to preface this by saying it's all in good fun. I realize I'm probably about to get shot for this opinion. I've got my bullet proof vest on. I would also LOVE to hear anyone's opinions on Stoppard and/or this particular show.
Tom Stoppard. Take a seat. We need to talk. Roughly eight months ago, I attended the first part of your quaint Russian trilogy known as “The Coast of Utopia.” There were lots of mannequins on stage, a cast that involved about a third of the city’s population, and more Russian pizzazz than a Vladimir Putin bathing in Stoli. Were it not for a little nagging illness known as Epstein Barr, I would have made it to the remaining two installments that I paid for in advance.
Even after your Tony Award winning drama put me in the sick ward for eight months (I kid, I really loved what I saw of “Utopia”), I was still willing to give you a chance Tommy boy. Really, I was. So last week I decided to sandwich my silliness (Xanadu (#5) and The Little Mermaid) with a healthy dose of intellectualism known as “Rock N Roll.” You’re so trendy spelling it that way, really. Little did I know what I was getting myself into.
When I took my seat I expected the usher to hand me a monocle and caviar, but sadly all I got was a Playbill with enough pre-show reading to fill a semester at Harvard. I skimmed the program insert, and to be honest, I was lost already. Judging from the crowd around me, I’m not exactly your target audience, but I can’t help but wonder who you are writing these shows for.
Let me get the inevitable out of the way. You’re very smart (a cruel understatement), and the amount of knowledge you cram into your plays is mind-blowing. I’m just not sure if it’s in a good way.
I’ve come to realize that I savor your plays more for the ideas that they prompt in me rather than the actual material on stage. I should admit that I’m no Stoppard connoisseur; the show of yours I enjoyed most was “Arcadia,” and that was when I was ten. Still, it’s refreshing to see something on Broadway that doesn’t supply answers to the audience from the get-go, but the discussions it elicited out of my friend and I were more geared toward the state of theater than the subject of your play.
With your latest, a dashing tale of communist repression set against the backdrop of the rock and roll revolution, you’ve taken things to a whole new level. Part of what struck me as strange was the fact that I don’t believe anyone talks the way you’ve written. As the play unfolded and spanned all the fashions and hairstyles from the 60’s to the 90’s, one thing remained constant, the bizarre monologues. These indulgent speeches that journey into political territory before veering into existentialism were so frequent that they lost their impact. Sure, there must be elitists out there who spend their nights dissecting government repression in heated debates with Brian Cox under Howard Harrison’s brilliant lighting. But under Trevor Nunn’s direction the actors came across so broad in their portrayals at times, that I almost wondered if I was watching a musical.
At times it felt like I was. The transitions between scenes, when the action would switch decades, often went on for what felt like…well, decades. Using classic rock songs to spruce up the evening seemed refreshing at first, as it gave my mind much needed breaks to process the story being told, but by the end I felt like I was listening to the Tom Stoppard iPod commercial. Who needs Mary J. Blige when you could have someone like Tom?
The turntable set, that spins as furiously as a worn out record, was inspired in it’s simplistic changes that framed the action on stage through the decades. Yet the show itself never managed to excite me as much as the set. Artistic repression to the extent that took place in Czechoslovakia is something I cannot even begin to fathom. As the heart of your show, I found this subject fascinating but was distracted by the rambling that should have stayed on the periphery but forced its way to the forefront.
I fear that with shows like this three-hour political drama you have created, audiences are afraid not to like it. With names like Stoppard and Nunn attached, and a set that acts as a mind-sucking vortex, the audience is stunned into submission by the time the curtain comes down. Ultimately I did my best to retain my mind throughout. The idea for the show was fantastic, but the execution left me wanting more. Am I in the minority? Sure. Although I like to believe there are more out there that agree with me but haven’t figured it out yet.