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CurtainUp Review
The Invention Of Love

We aren’t anything till there’s a word for it. . . ‘Homosexuals’ has been suggested. --Chamberlain, an openly gay man who works with Houseman at the patent office
That's a bararism. It’s half-Greek and half-Latin! -- Houseman
That sounds about right --Chamberlain

Richard Easton and Robert Shawn Leonard (Photo Paul Kolnik)

Who but Tom Stoppard would start things off by having his hero say "I'm dead then." Those words immediately establish the play's structure, for you can't have a dead hero unless you give him a last chance to ruminate on his life. And that is exactly what A.E. Houseman, does -- that's one of two The Invention of Love's Housemans, the 77-[year old, played with incisive irony and world weariness by Richard Easton.

The rowboat that will ferry Houseman down the Styx and into the unknown other world is also an apt device to interconnect the dead Houseman with the world of his younger self (Robert Sean Leonard in one of the best performances of his career). That world is Oxford University circa 1880 which influenced everything that happened (and didn't happen) to one of England's outstanding Latin scholars and the author of "The Shropshire Lad." Recreational and competitive rowing was as front and center to Oxford as scholarship, prompting one of the play's many real and famous characters, John Ruskin, to disdainfully call it "a Cockney watering place for learning to row." This makes for a natural and visually dynamic transition from the rowboat headed for Hades or Heaven to an idyllic boat ride by the young Houseman and his Oxford cronies -- one of whom, an athletic engineering student named Moses John Jackson (David Harbour), is the object of his undeclared (and unreciprocated) passion.

Now that I've established what Mr. Stoppard's long awaited play is about you've probably guessed that the reason it took three years to wend its way from London to Broadway might be that it might be the sort of heady stuff with limited appeal. Meanderings between the surreal! A university full of elite academics! A hero who's a poet and Latin scholar! Could The Invention of Love be one of those difficult "snob" plays that too hard "to get" and that puts enlightenment over enjoyment? As with any Stoppard play, the answer is both yes and no.

The Invention of Love is indeed chock-full of cultural allusions, events and characters that may or may not ring a bell of recognition. If you make it a point to arrive a half hour early to give yourself time to read the lengthy and interesting notes in your Playbill as well as to skim though Lincoln Center's lushly illustrated Theater Review which is dedicated to the play, you'll "get" more than you miss. You could also read the play. Stoppard's plays read very well (see link to paperback edition) but I think it's more satisfying to see the play before reading it since it was after all written to be seen.

At any rate, though the play demands close attention and even the most literate theater goer is likely to miss more than a few of the playwright's finer literary chess moves, it doesn't really matter. There are plenty of Stoppardian mots and bits of word play that do not require a Latin primer to hit their mark and, in many cases, make you laugh out loud. Take Houseman, the elder's analysis of the scholarly strengths of various countries. ". . .the French get credit for their cooking. During the siege of Paris I'm sure that the rats never tasted better. . .I'd recommend the Germans as mechanics."

Thanks to the witty dialogue the playwright has written and the superb cast Director Jack O'Brien has assembled to deliver it, the characters engage our interest even if we are unfamiliar with their backgrounds. What's more, Bob Crowley's costumes and sets, gorgeously lit by Brian MacDevitt, have translated the play's various worlds into a moveable feast of stage wizardry that could be enjoyed simply for its colors and imagery.

The double heroes, as already mentioned, are marvelously realized by Easton and Leonard. Easton deserves some sort of endurance medal for his fearless, full of feeling navigation through his many and prolonged speeches. Leonard's face in the scene when he finally declares his feelings for "Mo" is a map of painful emotions.

The dozen supporting actors (that's not counting the six-member ensemble) also provide rich rewards. To cite just a few standouts: Jeff Weiss is a droll Charon, the River Styx ferryman. Byron Jennings, whose career I've watched with ever increasing admiration, does not disappoint in the two small but rich roles of Benjamin Jowett and Henry Labouchère . Mark Nelson stands out as Chamberlain, Houseman's more sexually daring colleague at the Patent Office where he worked after failing his final exams. (These crucial exams caused many a suicide). There's also Daniel Davis's memorable cameo of Oscar Wilde, the more flamboyant and less sexually divided contemporary at Oxford whom Houseman heard much about but never met -- until Mr. Stoppard cleverly arranged an imaginary meeting in this play.

There are moments when The Invention of Love is self-indulgently long and, yes, dry, though Jack O'Brien's smart direction keeps this to a minimum. And lest the stage memoir of a man who straight-jacketed his poetic and emotional instincts for a circumscribed life seems incapable of arousing your empathy, just listen to his plaintive "Life was not short enough for me to not do the things I wanted not to do" and his mournful comment to Moses: "I would have died for you -- but I didn't have the luck".

London Production review
The Invention of Love paperback edition

byTom Stoppard
Directed by Jack O'Brien
Cast: Richard Easton and Robert Sean Leonard; also: Daniel Davis, Mirelle Enos, David Harbour, Paul Hecht, Brian Hutchison, Byron Jennings, Andrew McGinn, Peter McRobbie, Matthew Floyd Miller, Mark Nelson, Guy Paul, Martin Rayner, Peter A. Smith, Michael Stuhlbarg and David Turner.
Set and Costume Design: Bob Crowley
Lighting Design: Brian MacDeVitt
Sound Design: Scott Lehrer
Original Music: Bob James
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission
Lyceum, 149 West 45th St.(Broadway/6th Ave) 239-6200
3/01/01-open run; opening 3/29/01 .
Tue-Sat @8PM; Wed & Sat @2PM, Sun @3PM

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on April 4th performance


2001 CD-ROM Deluxe

The Broadway Theatre Archive

(C)Copyright 2001, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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