by Tom Stoppard
Directed by Jack O’Brien
A Production of the Lincoln Center Theater
At the Lyceum Theatre / 45th Street East of Broadway/ (212) 239-6200

Reviewed by David Spencer

There’s no way for one such as I–informed by popular culture and practical theatre experience far more than by formal literary study–to pretend any real qualification to review "The Invention of Love" in the exhaustive way it deserves. Tom Stoppard’s dazzling, difficult play about classical scholar and poet A.E. Housman doesn’t exactly require you to have a grounding in the art and craft of textual criticism, nor in Housman’s poetry–nor in the tenor of the times in which he lived (1859-1936). But when I tell you that the Playbill–not the Lincoln Center Theater Review specialty booklet available at the Lyceum Theatre (this is a production of Lincoln Center), but the regular Playbill handed out by the usherettes–has eight, count ’em, eight pages of supplementary notes, that gives you some idea of how dense and literary this play is.

I cannot comment on its scholarship, nor even in depth upon its dramaturgy. For that, I’d need to read it carefully, do a little research, and see it again. All I can do on the fly, really, is give you the kamikaze impression of one who walked into the world of A.E. Housman (as envisioned by Tom Stoppard) cold.

The play begins with Housman, aged 77 and dead (Richard Easton), about to jump onto Charon the Boatman’s barge and cross the River Styx into the underworld. Along his trip, he sees himself as a younger man (Robert Sean Leonard)–an ace student, soon to become the preëminent specialist in his field (the analysis and criticism of Latin texts) and a renowned poet–and for years harboring a secret love that dare not speak its name, for a colleague named Moses Jackson (David Harbour).

The play has an utterly unpredictable (yet somehow correct) structure, Houseman watching the flashbacks, absent from the flashbacks (which seem no longer flashbacks but events in real time), talking to his younger self (who is unaware that he is conversing with his older self), and at one point having a conversation with Oscar Wilde (Daniel Davis)–who, unlike Houseman, went public with his affections and paid the price of their society. And maintains he followed the wiser path.

For someone uninformed (as I was), it’s very easy to get lost in the play’s literary and structural allusions–to say nothing of its story (especially in the first act)–but dogged alertness (and trust me, you must go to this play rested) has its rewards…because eventually the mosaic takes on a shimmering and most unforgettable shape; even if you don’t follow it all, or understand it all on as deep a level as you wish, Stoppard provides enough of a learning curve so that you don’t resist the world he creates–but rather battle, just as Houseman does, to cope in it.

All the performances are quite remarkable, other notables in the ensemble including Michael Stuhlbarg, Byron Jennings and Mark Nelson. The sets and costumes by Bob Crowley are of an otherworldly handsomeness–and the direction of Jack O’Brien keeps a tight balance between emotion and intellectual remove…again, emulating the central struggle of Housman himself.

More than that, as I say, I’m not qualified to tell you. But if going to a remarkable, if complex, piece of theatre for the challenge of it is in your matrix, then "The Invention of Love" will provide worthy challenges aplenty…

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