As a style, rock ‘n’ roll is often messy, confused and at its best a pure musical thrill ride. The same can be said for “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Tom Stoppard’s meditation on music and politics that opened Friday at the Park Square Theatre.
Stoppard’s plays have often chewed over philosophical and social issues as much as emotional ones, sometimes leaving the characters as little more than ciphers presenting different sides of an intellectual debate. That happens here to some extent, but there is enough power in these complex and contradictory characters to keep the evening flying.
Set over 20-some years at the hallowed halls of Cambridge and in the politically repressed streets of Prague, “Rock ‘n’ Roll” centers on two characters — Max, a university professor and true believer in communism, and Jan, one of his Czech students who returns home at the play’s beginning after the Soviet invasion in 1968.
From there, we follow each character through the years. Max’s life is more about quiet conflicts — his stern support of the communist ideal often puts him at odds with others — and his wife’s battle with cancer. For Jan, he is left navigating an increasingly repressive state where even his beloved rock ‘n’ roll becomes revolutionary.
There are other streams running through the work, including the heartbreaking tale of Syd Barrett, the original leader of Pink Floyd, who flames out from fame and drug abuse and retreats to his parents’ Cambridge home.
All of this makes for a heady brew that could easily just turn into a discussion of cold-war politics. Instead, Stoppard — and actors Peter Moore and Dan Hopman — gives them plenty of nuances. Neither is entirely sympathetic — Max never wavers in his belief, even in the full sight of communism’s ruin; it takes Jan years to finally fully join the political opposition at home — but they both come off as much more human for it.
The other characters are drawn with varying amounts of life, which takes away some of the impact of having some of the actors play multiple generations through the show. That in turn, makes a confrontational dinner scene at the end carry quite a bit less impact than it should, as the varying politics and experiences finally come to a head.
Still, think of “Rock ‘n’ Roll” as a great but flawed album (hmm, kind of like Syd Barrett’s career), where the great tracks stand out foremost, and it’s easy to set aside the flaws.
“Rock ‘n’ Roll” runs through Feb. 7 at Park Square Theatre, 20 W. 7th St., St. Paul. Tickets are $15-$40. For tickets and more information, call 651-291-7005 or visit online.