A Touch of the Poet
by Clive Barnes
New York Post
March 30, 2001
The Invention of Love
The Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St. (212) 239-6200.
Hilarity and intelligence - not always inevitably in that order - are back on Broadway, not unexpectedly, with Britain's finest, Sir Tom Stoppard.The latest, perhaps the most ambitious and even most complete of his plays, his dazzling "The Invention of Love," arrived at the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway in a richly rewarding production by the Lincoln Center Theater.
It is a magnificently funny play, but as fleshily layered as an onion, ideas wrapping around ideas, thoughts jousting at thoughts, all jigging into place like a crazy-quilt collage to offer a picture of English life at the beginning of the 20th century.
The picture is, in fact, a mirror of a man's life - A.E. Houseman, a classical scholar and the popular poet of "A Shropshire Lad," who grew up in the reign of Queen Victoria and died in the short and troubled reign of Edward VIII.
As the play opens, a 77-year-old Houseman is waiting patiently on the banks of the Styx for the ferryman Charon to boat him across to Hades. As he makes this last semi-world journey, his mind - and the play - slips back to himself as an 18-year-old Oxford undergraduate boating with two friends on another river, the Isis.
From this moment on, the older Houseman (Richard Easton) wanders through - in retrospect, you might say - the life of the young Houseman (Robert Sean Leonard).
Houseman, a gently closeted homosexual (as a classicist, he is scandalized by the new word "homosexual," calling it a "barbarity - it's half Greek and half Latin!") has fallen passionately, and unavailingly, in love with one of those young men in the boat, Moses Jackson, a scientist, athlete and heterosexual.
This love may have destroyed Houseman as a person, but it inspired him as a poet (a rather insipid but overheated poet, I always thought), and possibly energized him as the most formidable Latin scholar of his day.
And, of course, he invented Jackson as the object of his love, just as his contemporary Oscar Wilde, who appears in the play as Antagonist to Houseman's Protagonist, points out that he, Wilde, invented his own love and nemesis, Lord Alfred Douglas.
What is especially remarkable about the play is the way in which Stoppard brilliantly places Houseman and Wilde, two contemporaries who never met, in the English cultural landscape of the time.
The staging is superb; director Jack O'Brien doesn't get a single nuancewrong, while Bob Crowley's settings of Stygian gloom, pastoral pleasure and an Oxford full of inspired spires and dreaming bicycles, carry imagination beyond the call of duty.
Stoppard brings out the best in actors - his talk is witty yet beautifully shaped - and the actors respond. Sean Leonard's younger Houseman, his mind on target, his body on edge and his heart on hold, is quite wonderful, while Easton as his older self, warily compassionate, deeply ironic, is equally convincing.
Daniel Davis' flamboyant Wilde ("better a fallen rocket than never a burst of light"); David Harbour as the stolid, likable Jackson; Michael Stuhlbarg as Houseman's other Oxford friend, Pollard; Jeff Weiss's nicely bored Charon; and Byron Jennings' neat double as both Jowett of Balliol and the parliamentarian Labouchere, all stand out in an outstanding cast.
So, a great evening.