Someone has finally written a play that tackles head-on that thoroughly modern dilemma of serious, intelligent adults who have a passion for mindless pop music. The hero of Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing is a playwright named Henry (played by Jeremy Irons) who is successful, forbiddingly articulate, and proudly intellectual, not unlike Stoppard himself. As the play begins, Henry is in something of a panic because he's been asked to go on the radio and play the records he'd most like to be stranded on a desert island with, and he can't quite bring himself to admit that the music he plays while working is stuff like "Da Doo Ron Ron" by the Crystals and Herman's Hermits singing "Can't You Hear My Heartbeat?" He's tearing through his record collection trying to find some acceptable classical choices, but the truth is that he hates classical music. He "went to hear this Callas person in a sort of foreign musical without dancing," and came away thinking it didn't hold a candle to the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling." And he grumbles that it's permissible for elite artists to say they listen to Pink Floyd -- even Irene Worth does that -- but Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders is another matter altogether. When the time comes, he does get up the nerve to reveal his guilty pleasures and is not barred from society, but his new (second) wife Annie (played by Glenn Close) launches a campaign to educate him on classical music. He has a breakthrough of sorts when he recognizes a familiar tune in a Bach piece -- as he plays "the original," laughter of recognition ripples selectively through the audience (among those who recognize the opening notes of Procol Harum's A Whiter Shade of Pale").

Such a moment in the theater is deeply satisfying to those of us who like to think we can hold our own in a conversation about Heiner Muller yet are moved to tears by the moment when the slow intro breaks into the uptempo theme on Irene Cara's "Flashdance -- What a Feeling." How is it possible for the same person to appreciate and refer knowingly to Cynthia Ozick and Roland Barthes and yet spend hours hypnotized by voices singing "Spread yourself/Over me like/Peanut butter" or "Last night a DJ saved my life/Last night a DJ saved my life/Yeah"? I used to think it was an unresolvable right-brain/left-brain split, and the fact that the theater -- our most highly articulate art form -- remained for the most part immune to rock music only confirmed the feeling that for thinking people, liking such junk culture just wouldn't do. Playwright Harry Kondoleon once wrote a scene in which a woman idly sang "There's Got to Be a Morning After" while taking a bath. When the director told the actress to croon another tune, the playwright timidly pointed out that it was important she sing "The Morning After" because it was the theme song to The Poseidon Adventure, to which the director replied: "Your mind is full of trash." (Undaunted, Kondoleon went on to write a play, The Vampires, which prominently features Screamin' Jay Hawkins's original version of "I Put a Spell on You.")

Because rock music so rarely infiltrates the theater (which may be why young people stay away), the occasional use carries an almost taboo thrill. For the most part, it doesn't happen at musicals, either, not even so-called rock musicals, which always sound more like other musicals than like rock. At best, there's a good song you'd like to hear sung by someone else. Maltby and Shire's Baby, for instance, has an R&B-flavored tune called "Two People in love" that works okay onstage but would be even better done by Patti Austin and James Ingram. The thing I've always thought kept Sam Shepard's Tooth of Crime from being the great play it could be is that the music Shepard wrote is terrible -- bad blues-rock incongruent with the spiky images projected by the various characters. One of the few plays with rock music that really worked was an off-Broadway production of David Hare's Teeth 'n' Smiles, which featured a real rock band onstage who knocked you back in your seat with their volume and energy. And of course a phenomenal performer like Jennifer Holliday could make you forget you're watching a play, at least while singing her big number from Dreamgirls.

Usually rock enters through the soundtrack, though. Dancers have often used pop records effectively, most notably Twyla Tharp (Supertramp never sounded better than in her Short Stories), and experimental theaters are often good for a potent taste of rock: remember the importance of "Hubba Hubba" to Mabou Mines' Dead End Kids, "Little Bitty Pretty One" to the Wooster Group's Route 1 & 9, and the snippets of Romeo Void and Laurie Anderson in Richard Foreman's Egyptology? Ntozake Shange's pieces memorably treated pop-soul hits as readymades ("We Are Family" in Spell #7, Stevie Wonder's "All I Do" in mouths). And performance artists can exploit the anything-is- material mandate of the form to borrow all sorts of pop debris. Peter Rose made Evelyn King's "Love Come Down" sound divine in his Berlin Zoo, Barry Davison located the contemporary punk energy lurking within Buddy Holly in his Oh Boy!, Italy's Falso Movimento basically just played their favorite records and danced in front of flashing slides for their Tango Glaciale, and part of Ann Magnuson's magic is her hilarious adaptation of cheesy pop songs for evangelical purposes in performances like After Dante, her magnum opus to date.

Incorporating rock into the drama is another matter altogether, and one of the few people who does that is British playwright Barrie Keefe, several of whose plays seems specifically constructed to make dramatic use of a classic rock song. An unemployed West Indian being interrogated by brutal English detectives in Sus recites Bob Marley's "No Woman No Cry" to heartbreaking effect, and the female rock bandleader in Bastard Angel makes Ben E. King's "Stand by Me" a chilling cry of despair. Unfortunately, Keefe's plays generally get rank-amateur productions in New York, with the exception of Gimme Shelter, directed at BAM in 1978 by Des Mc Anuff, a young director who makes sensational use of rock music both on soundtrack (it was delightful to hear "Every Breath You Take" in his production of Keefe's A Mad World, My Masters at the La Jolla Playhouse last summer) and with live musicians (in the rock musical Sleak, though not in his own Death of von Richtofen). What McAnuff and other enterprising directors attempt and sometimes succeed in accomplishing is to snap theatergoers out of their habitual worshipful state and into the alert, participatory feeling that is a rock concert's primitive lure. Lee Breuer has used music as one of many ingredients in his production of Lulu at Harvard and Gospel at Colonus at BAM to obliterate that invisible wall between the stage and the audience.

Something of the same feeling came across in Lenny and the Heartbreakers, the awful, fascinating, ultimately baffling musical -- excuse me, opera by Kenneth Robins recently produced at the Public Theater. This was clearly Joseph Papp's reaction to the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Lichtenstein; the main character, who was either Leonard da Vinci transported to the computer age or a boy named Lenny who thought he was da Vinci (depending on which mode you were, like, wired into), kept singing, "I am the next wave!" Papp's response to seeing Laurie Anderson at BAM was that he couldn't figure out what the work was about, what it meant. There's no such problem with Lenny. It's about an avant-garde artist who gets a commission from a cigar-smoking Mr. de Medici whose initials are J.P. (get it?) but who gets so wrapped up in his inventions that his girlfriend Angela, his "Soho madonna," leaves him for his rich benefactor. Wouldn't you rather have a story like that performed in Xhosa so you wouldn't have to know how utterly trite it was? One watched in horror and disbelief as Lenny spouted lines like "I did it, I made the climb/I'm the renaissance wonderboy of our time!" and a quartet of Angels incessantly dropped art-world names (everything from Warhol's Monroe to Schnabel's plates, and Mary Boone to boot) on a set that looked uncannily like the Missing Persons' video on MTV.

Still, I must say I've never seen or heard anything quite like Lenny and the Heartbreakers, with its crypto-poetic computer jargon, surreally brilliant lighting, high-tech video, and an orchestra consisting of Vocoder, Linn drum machine, two Prophet and two Jupiter synthesizers, and I've got to give Papp credit for going with something this crazy and undefinable. Granted, a lot of the techniques are directly stolen from other avant-garde artists: the closed-circuit camera from Twyla Tharp's Bad Smells, a red-light-white-circle motif from Laurie Anderson, comically inept dancing from Richard Foreman. The amazing thing is that Lenny seems to be a deliberate attempt to popularize a bunch of avant-garde theater techniques by blatantly trashing them up -- not in itself a ridiculous idea and in some respects a logical response to those who criticize theater and opera for being stuck in 19th century conventions. You're certainly not going to see an all-synthesizer orchestra at the met anytime soon, or anything remotely resembling MTV at the Vivian Beaumont. Then again, for all the money (supposedly $400,000) and care lavished on Lenny, it's too bad all that technology and thievery wasn't attached to a story with mythic resonance rather than a parade of jumpsuited dolls babbling, "Is it art? Is it art?"

At first I had thought the crucial flaw in Lenny and the Heartbreakers was that it was about an artist, and that real people could care less about the creative anxiety of an artist because that's something that can't be shown or acted. However, The Real Thing is about a playwright and no less fascinating for it. But then Tom Stoppard is one of the few playwrights who can get away with anything. As you must have guessed, The Real Thing is not just about whether a writer can live with himself after admitting in public that he prefers Neil Sedaka to Strauss. But it's also not just about an intellectual who learns to love for the first time, which you might think from reading most reviews. Henry knows how to love, all right, but he thinks it's like spelling, that there's only one correct way, and that is Romantic Love, faithful monogamy lethally sundered by a single sexual infidelity. That's well and good for romantic comedies and pop-song lyrics, but adult love -- the real thing -- is something more complicated, sometimes more painful, ultimately better, which Henry only learns from his wife Annie's wisdom and forbearance when she has an affair yet refuses to let it destroy their marriage. Stoppard gives Henry brilliant arias defending his side of the argument, so it's not hard for Jeremy Irons to shine (though he's still great -- a performance you feel privileged to witness in person). But the burden of conveying Annie's winning argument falls mostly to the actress playing a perilously underwritten role, and Glenn Close does it with deceptive ease, maneuvering among the men in her life with a mysterious, one-step-ahead knowingness that is partly maternal and partly sexual, a very appealing combination. Good performances, too, from Christine Baranski, Kenneth Walsh, Cynthia Nixon, Peter Gallagher, and Vyto Ruginis, who plays a pseudo-political prisoner named Brodie in a nasal accent suspiciously reminiscent of Ringo Starr in the Beatles's movies.

New York Beat, January 1984