NEW YORK - Political argument, family drama, history lesson, cultural commentary, love story - Tom Stoppard's "Rock 'n' Roll" is all these things and more. Ultimately, though, what it is most of all is a hymn to the great god Pan.
The anarchic, uncageable spirit of that wild deity runs through Stoppard's new play, imported from London to open on Broadway this week, like a shaggy and smiling satyr. It's there in the debates about communism and censorship; it's there in the analysis of Sappho's poetry; it's there in the long-delayed romance that pulses along just below the surface of the play's 20-plus years before it finally emerges in a scene of astonishing simplicity and grace.
And Pan is there, of course, in the music, in the tracks from the Stones and Dylan and the Velvet Underground and the Dead that punctuate each change of scene. Rock, the modern song of Pan, smashes through the play's unfolding tale of history, crushing us with its force and filling us with its energy as it takes us from Prague Spring to Velvet Revolution and beyond.
Sometimes, in the middle of the play's journeys from England's Cambridge to Prague and back again, it's easy to lose track of Pan's voice, what with all the namedropping - Dubcek, Marx, Havel, and even the Plastic People of the Universe, a scraggly Czech rock band whose members, simply by insisting that their desire to play rock music had nothing to do with dissident politics, became political dissidents whether they liked it or not. Both at beginning and end, though, with lovely images and resonating sounds, Stoppard makes it clear what he's really up to here: Along with Syd Barrett and Mick Jagger, he's singing a rock song, an irrepressible anthem of love and freedom.
Barrett, the beautiful boy whose descent into druggy madness got him exiled from Pink Floyd, even appears as a character in "Rock 'n' Roll," though mostly an offstage one. His one onstage moment is a stunner: He opens the first scene perched on a garden wall, playing "Golden Hair" on what can only be a Pan pipe to a golden-haired girl below.
That girl is Esme, daughter of a Cambridge professor named Max Morrow and admirer of Max's Czech student Jan. Max and Jan have had a falling-out over the Soviet tanks that have just rolled through the streets of Prague; Jan is returning home - "to save socialism," he jokes - while Max remains unrepentantly pro-Soviet for the sake of his beloved Marx.
For a long time it seems as if the conflict between Max and Jan is the central focus of the play; certainly it is given breathtaking depth and range by the virtuosic performances of Brian Cox, as the stubborn and irascible Max, and Rufus Sewell, whose beautifully complicated Jan is worn but never broken by years of trying to stay human under a crushing regime. But Stoppard is up to something more interesting than restaging old arguments about communist ideals and totalitarian realities. He signals what that something is by putting Syd Barrett up on that wall - and, more and more as the play goes on, by focusing the story on its women.
Two of these women, Esme and her fiercely intelligent mother, Eleanor, are played by one actress: Sinead Cusack, who finds a unique blend of steel and silk for each one. Alice Eve also doubles, as the young Esme and later as her daughter, Alice, and she too fuses elements of humor and strength. As in any great band, all the performances make an indelible impression of their own, even as they merge into something larger and less simply pinned down: It's the mix that makes it great.
At times the history can feel like heavy going, and you can't help wondering how much heavier it must be for those who weren't around to live through some of it the first time. But Trevor Nunn's direction keeps us focused on the humans before us, not the events behind them; we see how politics shapes their lives, but they're never reduced to symbols or pawns. The design team, too, clarifies and supports the action, with Robert Jones's set revolving between leafy Cambridge and stone-gray Prague, and Howard Harrison's lighting by turns golden and ice-cold.
And, most of all, there's the music. Sometimes it matches the mood, sometimes it crashes into it with ironic counterpoint, but always it advances the story and evokes its passing times. The final, cathartic chords pull it all together, in an explosive moment of piercing clarity and power. Maybe it's only rock 'n' roll, but sometimes that's more than enough.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.