Credit: Joe Mazza

On its surface, Tom Stoppard’s magisterial play is a jargon-heavy requiem
for the Eastern bloc, oscillating scene by scene between the high-table
gossip of a Cambridge Marxist academic named Max (H.B. Ward) and the
tumultuous ordeal under communism of his hippie transfer student Jan
(Julian Hester). Close to three decades in the saga of Czechoslovakia’s
tug-of-war between the Kremlin and commercial capitalist hegemony play out
at the grittiest level of detail: in Prague, Jan and his friends debate the
viability of President Gustáv Husák’s normalization policies, while Max and
others, in a dozen extremely dense English rows, weigh in on subjects
ranging from physicalism versus innatism to Sappho’s papyri in the
Ashmolean.

If that were all this play were—the ramblings of an unreconstructed tankie,
a flower child’s forlorn obsession with Western classic rock as his
personal antidote to politics—it would hurt to sit through it. Instead,
underneath that density of material is a grand object lesson in the loss of
innocence. With vehement intensity, the courageous cast of this mammoth
two-hour, 45-minute show, directed by Kathy Scambiatterra, sift through the
failed embers of history for the theatrical experience of a lifetime.

With the exception of Ward, my new favorite Chicago actor, the cast could
be less afraid to let their chatterbox lines be the white noise they’re
written as, evasive smokescreens for unspeakable truths that will out. Nota
bene: the key thing with the English is that even they think they’re
boring.   v