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This review by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the

April 11, 2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Broadway Review: `Invention of Love’

The rather stolid and sexually disappointing life

of the English poet and classical scholar A.E. Housman has been

brought

to stunning dramatic life by playwright Tom Stoppard. Primarily

renowned

for a collection of poems "A Shropshire Lad," and less so

for his aggressive assaults on other scholars for their sloppy

translations

of the poems of passion written by the ancient Greeks and Romans,

Housman was to remain throughout his life emotionally repressed and

unwilling to follow his inclinations. Now this "closeted"

life has been outed with intelligence, wit and style by Stoppard.

Stoppard, whose gift for empowering his plays with that what is

self-consciously

academic and dramatically romantic (as in "Rosencrantz and

Guildenstern

are Dead," "Travesties," and "Arcadia") has once

again brought to bear his incomparable virtuosity and formidable way

with words.

The language, both Stoppard’s invention and that which he culls

directly

from Houseman, is, in truth, daunting. Much of it cites the work and

the wrangling of critics of the Victorian age, yet it is surprisingly

gripping (as was the scientific talk in "Copenhagen"). How

amusing it is to hear Housman’s glee when he discovers that a mere

misplaced comma has unwittingly altered the intent of an ancient love

poem.

To fully enjoy this haunting play that filters Housman’s secret

passions

and agonies through his academic pursuits, you may be well advised

to arrive at the theater early enough to read the Lincoln Center

Theater

Review that is available in the lobby. This, along with the program

notes, gives you a useful background on Housman.

"The Invention of Love" is a riveting often funny, journey

as well as a love story that takes us from the banks of the River

Styx to the halls of Oxford University. The play begins in 1936, the

year of Housman’s death. We meet the 77-year-old Housman chatting

with Charon (Jeff Weiss), the quick-witted ferryman of Hades, who

says he is waiting for one more passenger to arrive. While in this

state of purgatory, Housman’s mind wanders back to his days as an

Oxford undergraduate, rowing down the river Isis with two friends.

Housman, played as a young man by Robert Sean Leonard, is never far

removed from his older self, who moves in and out of the young

Housman’s

life trying to understand the anxieties of the young man who has

fallen

desperately in love with Moses Jackson (David Harbour), a virile and

handsome science student and heterosexual athlete.

That the love that dare not speak its name would only be reflected

through and materialized in Housman’s love for Latin is given

additional

poignancy by the presence of Oscar Wilde (Daniel Davis). Davis is

grand and eloquent as the daring and scandal-beset aesthete who did

not know Housman in real life, but is conveniently around to mock

Housman’s choice of restraint and denial. As the play is, of

necessity,

verbose and long (nearly three hours), Jack O’Brien’s staging is a

marvel of fluidity and invention, keeping the words and action of

the large company moving along briskly.

Bob Crowley’s dreamy impressionistic set designs find

an infinite variety of ways and means to embrace and romanticize even

such things as the fevered pontificating between such esteemed

professors

as Pater (Martin Rayner) and Ruskin (Paul Hecht). No less exhilarating

are the discussions on life and the classical antiquities that inspire

Housman and his friend Pollard (Michael Stuhlbarg), but leaves the

amiable, unconverted Jackson in left field. Only those who have been

there can attest to how funny and full of love this play is. Under

a veneer of reverential intellectualism, "The Invention of

Love"

has an erratic heart that beats wildly and erotically.

Easton’s superb performance, constrained by an Oxford deportment,

reaches an ecstatic high (believe it or not) when lecturing on the

merits of good classical translation. Leonard, who looks more and

more like a young Laurence Olivier, acts with a fervor that reaches

an emotional peak when Housman, who has been sharing rooms with

Jackson,

reveals his feelings to an affably understanding Jackson, who remains

his friend for life. Mark Nelson makes a terrific impression as

Housman’s

outspoken, wry, gay friend, who hints at a life that was more passion

than poetry. Would that the play on occasion did too, but then it

wouldn’t be about Housman. Three stars.

— Simon Saltzman

The Invention of Love, Lyceum Theater, 149 West 45 Street,

New York. Tele-Charge at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200.

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