Great artists take great risks and one of my favorite playwrights, Tom Stoppard, takes some of the biggest around. His play Arcadia, for instance, is a dazzling parade of structural and thematic gambles and, amazingly, they all pay off.
In his newest, Rock 'n' Roll, receiving its local premiere with Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre, Stoppard takes just as many risks ... and almost none of them work. Rock 'n' Roll is a bad play in the way only a great playwright can manage -- so outrageously off the mark that its audacity almost makes up for its misfires.
The play opens in Cambridge, England, in the mid-1960s, but soon splits in half, and we toggle back and forth between England and Czechoslovakia. Stoppard covers the ensuing 25 years of political and social upheaval in Prague, the rise of Thatcherism, the hegemony of capitalism and the destruction of socialism and communism.
Oh, and there's a bunch of stuff about rock bands from the period, and the most emotionally compelling moments are in the first act, and involve a woman's slow death from breast cancer.
In Arcadia and, to a lesser extent, The Real Thing, Stoppard's as esoteric and eclectic as he is here. But in both those play he constructs (and masterfully so) work that's solid, rewarding and coherent.
But Rock 'n' Roll is a wildly obscure and disjointed mess. He has unwisely chosen to make his least interesting characters the play's focus, including a Czech semi-dissident named Jan (pronounced "yawn" for more than one reason). Jan (played by Sam Redford) is an entirely passive creature upon whom the world around him just happens. It may be Stoppard's point that we are powerless in shaping our own destiny; but inertia, as the driving force of a play, isn't the wisest choice he ever made.
There is a chance, although slight, that stronger direction by PICT's Andrew Paul might have fashioned some sort of spine and dramaturgical purpose from this sprawling, opaque and resolutely unyielding script. But that is pure supposition: How can you improve something that isn't there?
Several strong performances help make patches of the play not merely durable but entertaining, including Sam Tsoutsouvas as an unrepentant British commie; Helena Ruoti's moving turn as the doomed wife; and Tami Dixon as an hysterically funny dissident.
It's been said that even the worst of Stoppard is better than most other playwrights' best. Here's your chance to find out.
Rock 'n' Roll continues through May 30. Stephen Foster Memorial Theatre, Forbes Avenue at Bigelow Boulevard, Oakland. 412-394-3353 or www.picttheatre.org