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LA Theater Review

Rock 'n' Roll

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Much has been made, and continues to be made, of the intellectualism in this Tom Stoppard script. On its cerebral side, it's about European politics and culture in the second half of the 19th century, and it comprises dialectics about communism, Sapphic poetry taught in its original Greek, and an introduction to Czech rock (who knew, right?). It's also an old-fashioned love story. The humanity of the play is there for all who care to observe, or feel, it.

Cambridge professor Max may stand by communism till the apparatchiks come home, but he has never been forced to live under its strictures. Likewise, Czech doctoral student Jan defends the British way of life but has probably never felt the impediments of its class system. The play begins in 1968 in the English garden of Max and his dying wife, Eleanor. Jan has stopped by to bid farewell to his mentor before Jan does himself no favors by returning to his homeland with a suitcase full of nothing but "socially negative" music from the West. By 1990, the academics' personal lives have moved on, while the world has not.

Under Barbara Schofield's direction, much of the delivery feels slightly heightened, giving the production the feel of an allegory. Playing Jan, Benjamin Burdick brings tenderness and European mannerisms to the role. Will Kepper is a towering presence as Max—gruff, almost feral, and sticking unreservedly to his guns. As the ailing Eleanor, Beth Robbins does spectacularly heartbreaking work melding Stoppard's intelligence and soul. Daniel Escobar makes an amusing yet terrifying Interrogator. Jeremy Guskin is real and engaging as the thorny friend in Jan's side.

James Spencer and Kis Knekt's set provides multiple locales of wood and stone and metal, creating clear playing spaces that fill the cavernous theater. The set also chillingly reveals the "watchers" monitoring Jan's apartment in Prague.

So, an audience can try to ride Stoppard's steep waves. Or, as this critic did, we can let the totality bathe us in admiration as we wait and hope that the young lovers we met at the top of the play will finally reunite at the play's end. And with all of Stoppard's intellect and sociological hyperawareness, he gives us the full story rather than making us guess at what happens "ever after." It's only rock 'n' roll, but I sure liked it.

Presented by and at the Open Fist Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.  Nov. 5–Dec. 18. Fri.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.  (323) 882-6912 or www.openfist.org.

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