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A blast of pure oxygen in a theatrical season that has up to now been wheezing its way out of winter, Tom Stoppard’s scintillating intellectual comedy The Invention of Love is an out-and-out triumph at Studio Theatre. Brimming with wit, sharply acted, inventively staged, astutely designed, and sensibly respectful of audiences, this erudite riff on love and Latin in scholarly Edwardian circles more than lives up to the hype that’s surrounded it since its premiere four years ago in London.
Studio, which turned Stoppard’s less-celebrated Indian Ink into an SRO smash last year, had already been forced by ticket buyers to extend the run of The Invention of Love before critics came to see it on opening night, and will doubtless find it necessary to extend again, and again, well into summer. Still, you’d be foolish to wait to make reservations simply because the play is likely to be around for a while. You may well want to catch it twice, after all, and the troupe will eventually need to begin its next season. Time, as the play keeps reminding us, waits for no one.
Certainly, time wouldn’t stand stillor rather, wouldn’t roll backfor Stoppard’s protagonist, A.E. Housman, the poet and literary classicist who, a couple of millennia late, tried to cloak his romantic feelings for his Oxford classmate Moses Jackson in the heroic ideals of ancient Greece and Rome. Housmanbest known for his book of poems A Shropshire Ladattended school at about the same time as Oscar Wilde but was far more circumspect about his sexual inclinations. His relationship with Jackson was platonic, as it is in Stoppard’s play, but passions kept under wraps are still passions, and in The Invention of Love, we watch them bloom where they caninto Housman’s fiercely held (and drolly stated) positions on textual analysis, poetic discourse, and classical philosophies…and into a desperate, wistful ache that shapes his life as much as his work.
Does that sound dry? Well, it sure as hell isn’t at Studio. Not with Stoppard sending academic arguments soaring on waves of puns and epigrams, and director Joy Zinoman batting them around with whatever the directorial equivalent is of that perfectly sprung cricket bat Stoppard used as a metaphor for art in The Real Thing.
From the moment we encounter the recently deceased Housman (Ted van Griethuysen) waiting to be ferried across the River Styx, he’s delectably droll. “I’m dead, then,” he says, surveying the audience. “Good.”
It’s while he’s reminiscing with the mythical boatman, Charon (an acerbic Conrad Feininger), about his Oxford days that Housman’s comparatively ebullient younger self (Tom Story) floats into view in another skiff, rowed by young Moses Jackson (Patrick Hallahan). These strapping teenagers are as coltish as most college students, but Victorian society is already applying reins and blinders to their carefree behavior. As Stoppard leaps around chronologicallypart of the play’s fun lies in piecing together the temporal jigsaw puzzle he’s constructedyou hear social repression weighing in. It’s there in the presumptuous pontificating of Oxford dons John Ruskin and Walter Pater, in the casually censorious phrasing of parliament members (“unnatural behavior like football and sodomy”), and in journalists’ conversations about the trials of Oscar Wilde. Almost nothing in the play is mentioned just once, and on second and third reference, issues that initially seemed minoreven a seemingly innocuous comment about commascan acquire astonishing resonance.
Of course, that’s Stoppard’s method. In Arcadia, he also bounced ideasabout everything from landscape gardening to chaos theoryoff every available surface until it seemed as if the ricocheting notions themselves were lighting up the stage. If The Invention of Love isn’t quite so giddy, that’s because it’s not so much about the exhilaration of knowledge as about the limitations of learning.
Still, that doesn’t make the notions being batted about any less compelling, and they’ve been wedded to character and emotional truth in this study of Housman more affectingly than in any Stoppard work since The Real Thing. And nowhere are they more lyrically treated than toward the end of the first act, when the playwright, having established how much his protagonist has changed over the years, contrives a way to bring the young and old Housmans together. They have, as might be expected, a fairly breathtaking conversation, of which the comment “I’m not as young as I was, whereas you, of course, are,” is the only sample I’ll give you. You’ll want to hear the rest yourself.
Studio’s mounting begins in an appropriately Stygian gloom that, with an assist from Joseph Appelt’s otherworldly lighting, brightens as the play’s arguments catch fire. By moving a few rows of seats, designer Russell Metheny has re-created the Milton Theatre as an in-the-round auditorium, bringing the audience even closer to the action in what was already an intimate space. He’s also ringed the stage with a delicate dried-flower representation of Oxfordian trees and supplied skeletal skiffs that whirl and surge entirely persuasively when rowed with phantom oars. Other elements are equally well-managed, from Gil Thompson’s sound design, which incorporates chirping birds with a terrific Gregorian-chant-inspired score by Fred Karns, to Anne Kennedy’s character-defining (and, often, confining) Edwardian suits. Especially fine are the modest but significant alterations in style and color that simultaneously link and distinguish the two Housmans.
The actors work similar wonders. Whether dismissing the work of a competing classical scholar (“His idea of editing a text is to change a letter or two and see what happens”), waxing euphoric on the value of “useless knowledge for its own sake,” or commenting ruefully on a life “marked by long silences,” van Griethuysen is splendida linguistic acrobat who has learned to be an emotional mime. As the younger Housman, Story is a fine match for him, intelligent and passionately repressed. And there’s not a single weak link in a supporting cast that includes such area stalwarts as James Slaughter, David Bryan Jackson, David Fendig, Timothy Rice, and the increasingly accomplished Dan Via, as a closeted co-worker who understands Housman’s anguish (“You want him to know what cannot be spoken, and make a perfect reply in the same language”).
As if merely getting the play right weren’t enough, Zinoman’s satisfying staging even manages to finesse a couple of minor critical quibbles that have dogged well-received productions in other cities. Reviewing the Broadway mounting that also opened last weekend, the New York Times lamented that Manhattan’s “loutish Jackson” seems unworthy of desirea criticism hardly likely to be leveled at the attractive, subtly shaded athlete who holds Studio’s Housman in his thrall. Hallahan makes the lad a curious, engaged jock, who tries with appealing sweetness to puzzle out life’s mysteries as an undergrad (“Kissing girls is not like science, nor is it like sport; it’s a third thing when you thought there were only two”) and is later simply obtuse about Housman’s attraction to him, not callous.
And from the way the play is staged at Studio, you’d have no idea that the appearance of Oscar Wilde in the play’s final half-hour could ever be considered problematic. In London, the flashy, quip-spouting Wilde was said to have upstaged the academically reserved Housman; at Studio, Zinoman has actor George Crowley play not Wilde in his prime, but Wilde diminished by illness after his stint in Reading Gaol. His lines still bristle, but the visual imagery is transparent. If Housman has paid dearly for his timidity, so has Wilde for his flamboyance. Destiny always exacts its price.
If you want further evidence, hie yourself off to a library and find a copy of a wrenching 39-page volume that Housman’s brother Laurence published after the classicist’s death. Titled Alfred Edward Housman’s “De amicitia,” it contains the unpublishedbecause they were “too autobiographical”poems A.E. Housman left behind, along with a haunting account of the largely blank diaries found in his apartment, which were nearly empty of entries except for cryptic mentions of Jackson (“Monday, November 18, 1889: He came to me at the Office a little after 3”). The brevity of those entries says more than Housman ever permitted himself to say aloud about the yearning that dared not speak its name.
All the more rewarding, then, that Stoppard has given eloquent, revivifying voice to the tug of war between intellect and feeling. “Before Plato could describe love,” the playwright has Housman say, “the loved one had to be invented.” And with an almost startling dramatic clarity, that’s just what happens onstage.
Dunno about you, but this is what I go to the theater for. CP