Tom Stoppard has probably the most varied body of work of any playwright in modern times. His work, ranging from The Real Inspector Hound, about two theatre critics that cannot help being swept up in the action, to Travesties, a life story told using The Importance of Being Earnest as a basis, to the Oscar-winning Shakespeare in Love, has made an indelible impression on the worlds of theatre and film. With The Invention of Love, however, Stoppard has proven himself to be the modern day equivalent of George Bernard Shaw.
Celebrated British poet and Latin Professor A.E. Houseman (Paxton Whitehead) waits at the river Styx for the boat piloted by Charon (Maury Cooper) to carry him across. During his wait, his memories take us back in time to the years he spent at Oxford and his life afterward. We meet Houseman's younger self (Guy Adkins) when he is a student at Oxford, and see his infatuation with Moses Jackson (Martin Yurek), a fellow student. Houseman's burgeoning homosexual feelings coincide historically with the Henry Labouchere-inspired Gross Indecency laws that led to Oscar Wilde's undoing. Houseman, however, loves only in theory, a love that would never be returned. In Houseman we see a man whose entire life is comprised of scholarship and analysis, the two things that deprive him of the ability to invest himself in his emotions. Highly intelligent but also highly emotional, The Invention of Love is a play that deserves to be seen.
Director Charles Newell effectively handles the challenges that this play presents. Especially compelling are the scenes in which the older and younger Houseman talk about poetry and analysis. In these scenes the elder seems to be advising the younger to not make the mistakes he will surely still make. Newell's perfect casting imbues this play with a great depth of emotion in the midst of all the scholarship. Also compelling are the scenes in which we see the political turmoil of the time, especially the references to Oscar Wilde's fall from grace and eventual death.
Paxton Whitehead gives a striking performance as the elder Houseman. He is still able to find humor when looking back on his life, while still experiencing a great loss. Whitehead gives us the idea of what hell is - being ceaselessly reminded of the things that caused us the most pain. Guy Adkins, perhaps the finest actor in Chicago, is brilliant as the younger Houseman. His passion for text analysis balanced with his unspoken passion for his friend Moses is heartbreaking. Also notable is Ray Frewen's Oscar Wilde, who chides the elder Houseman for denying his true nature.
Don't be put off by all the lofty language, The Invention of Love is a remarkably emotional journey. It runs through October 15 at the Court Theatre
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