Tom Stoppard's "The Invention of Love" is a play in which the only way love finds physical expression is through glances of fervent but restrained yearning. This is not most people's idea of romantic drama, but Stoppard, in a way only he could, turns it into dazzling theater. The central character in "Love" is the English poet A. E. Housman, who died in 1936 and is best remembered for the poems collected under the title "A Shropshire Lad."
It was odd for Housman to have adopted the voice of a wistful country lad, for he was in fact a distinguished classics scholar, famous for launching ferocious attacks on other scholars for their imprecise translations of Greek and Roman love poetry. Only in the 19th century did scholars recognize that love, or at least literary love, was an invention of classical culture. For Stoppard, it is both funny and poignant that these scholars battle one another over commas in trying to understand what the ancients meant by love. Another reason their linguistic pugnacity has a certain pathos is that, clearly in Housman's case but more than likely in that of many others, their actual libidinal impulses were carefully reined in - lest anyone suspect their inclination toward "the love that dare not speak its name."
As a contrast to these repressed pedants, Stoppard introduces Oscar Wilde, flaunting his esthetic and erotic sensibilities. In his own time, Wilde struck some as foolish, others as heroic. When we think what we lost when scandal ended his career, he seems more self-destructive than courageous. Was his self-inflicted martyrdom wiser or braver than Housman's impassioned reticence? The great love of Housman's life was a handsome young man on the rowing team, Moses Jackson, with whom he maintained a friendship all his life. Whether he acknowledged his love to Jackson, we do not know. In Stoppard's account, Jackson was too dim to understand the depth of what Housman felt for him, but this blindness was easier in a world that did not place sex at the center of everything. There is no plot as such. Much of the play is a dialogue between Housman at 77, looking back on his life as he is rowed into Hades by Charon, and the young Housman, a student being rowed along the rivers of Oxford by Jackson. Under the direction of Jack O'Brien, "Love" is intoxicating. The play has stretches of scholarly pontificating that might be tedious if O'Brien did not stress that, however troubled the subtext, "Love" is a comedy. Equally important, his actors never let us forget the depth of emotion beneath the brittle intellectual surface. He has found two splendid actors to play Housman: Richard Easton, who conveys all the turbulence beneath the older man's elegant reserve, and Robert Sean Leonard, whose looks project the promise of youth and whose soulful dignity reflects an intelligence all too aware of the struggles it must endure. As Jackson, David Harbour has an affableness that suggests why he could allow Housman to remain close all his life without feeling threatened. Michael Stuhlbarg handles the role of the friend who understands the relationship of Housman and Jackson with grace. Mark Nelson has a small but potent role as virtually the only person in the play who acknowledges sexual reality. Peter McRobbie, Martin Rayner, Paul Hecht, Byron Jennings and Guy Paul are superb as a series of haughty scholars and fatuous journalists. Daniel Davis has great flair as Wilde, and Jeff Weiss is expectedly funny as Charon. Bob Crowley's imaginative sets keep the play's inexhaustible inventiveness flowing. Except for Wilde's costumes, the colors are muted, suitable backdrops for the heady ideas and bountiful wit. The calisthenics Stoppard provides for the cerebrum leave you giddy and exhilarated.
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 nuance wrong, 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.
When Tom Stoppard goes to hell, you can bet it won't be fire and brimstone waiting below. The Hades that's conjured in the shimmering Lincoln Center production of Mr. Stoppard's ''Invention of Love,'' which opened last night at the Lyceum Theater, has the requisite Stygian gloom, all right. But what illuminates it isn't infernal flame, but bright, lambent wit.
These sources of light include shiny schoolboy puns, polished epigrams, triumphant references to Greek and Latin poetry and coruscating put-downs of scholars who teach it. Old Charon the Boatman is there, chuckling at his own gallows humor. But the fellow who gets the best lines is the guest of honor, the newly deceased A. E. Housman, the Edwardian poet of ''A Shropshire Lad'' and classicist extraordinaire. Hell, in other words, turns out to be an old-style academic's dream of a cocktail party.
Now wait one moment, please, before you switch channels on me or -- perish the thought -- call the Lyceum box office to turn in your tickets. It's true that ''The Invention of Love,'' first seen in London in 1997, is one of those Stoppard comedies in which cleverness is next to godliness. It's also true that the play has a breadth of historical and cultural allusion to make Mr. Stoppard's ''Travesties'' (the one with James Joyce and Tristan Tzara) seem like ''Sesame Street.''
And yet it's entirely possible to enjoy, even revel in, this time-traveling fantasia about art, history, memory and homosexuality without getting every obscure reference, although you would do well to read the explanatory notes in your program before the curtain goes up. (And if you really want to get every reference, get thee to a library and stay there for a week.)
For one thing, Mr. Stoppard is, to put it bluntly, an outrageous showoff, which often makes for good theater. He wants, above all, to charm and amuse and impress.
It is also a blessing that the director is Jack O'Brien, whose credits include, of all things, the Broadway musical ''The Full Monty'' and the ripping Lincoln Center production of Mr. Stoppard's ''Hapgood.'' Mr. O'Brien is ever the showman, and not above borrowing from burlesque and the music hall to liven things up.
And he has brought out the liveliness -- and, whenever possible, the emotional truth -- in a remarkably fine cast led by Richard Easton and Robert Sean Leonard as the older and younger Housmans.
The staging captures Mr. Stoppard's brimming self-delight and enthusiasm, and it avoids the didactic dustiness that overwhelmed the stateside premiere last year at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. And Bob Crowley's sets, which present turn-of-the-century Oxford as something like Yeats's golden vision of Byzantium, appropriately mix scholastic elegance and brazen razzmatazz.
More significant, though, and what keeps ''Invention'' from being only a highbrow frolic, is what lies beneath its intellectual glitter. That's the same wistful ache that throbbed through Mr. Stoppard's most emotionally accessible works to date, ''The Real Thing'' and ''Arcadia.'' And Mr. Easton and Mr. Leonard, playing the different ages of one man, provide vital portraits that haunt even as they entertain.
The structure that contains and mingles such extreme cleverness and woundedness is, in technical terms, a marvel. Beginning with the 77-year-old Housman poised to enter the underworld, ''Invention'' then journeys back to the old man's youth at Oxford University.
Now this kind of retro movement isn't so unusual; Hollywood has always loved it. But Mr. Stoppard takes a dizzying number of side trips into the broader cultural landscape of Housman's England. So we spend time with Oxford dons (Ruskin, Pater and Jowett are the best known) who discuss both the corruptions of classical translation and the dangers of love between men (alternately called beastliness and spooniness).
Members of Parliament and the press show up to discuss the epochal trials of Oscar Wilde, who makes a spectacular appearance (in the mesmerizing form of Daniel Davis) toward the long evening's end. These vignettes have a stylized, slightly cartoonish quality that contrasts with the more earnestly presented scenes of the young Housman, who hopelessly and cautiously loved a fellow Oxonian, the athletic Moses John Jackson (David Harbour).
Wending your way through all these levels is like working an acrostic puzzle. As you start to fill in the blanks, making connections, patterns emerge. And the clearer they become, the more emotional resonance they acquire. ''Invention'' can seem irritatingly arcane, but when you look at it closely, there's not one word or image that doesn't help complete the puzzle.
At the core of the play is an unsettling dualism. It's evident in the opening moments when the joke-cracking Charon (an enjoyably hammy Jeff Weiss) tells the dead Housman that they're still waiting for another passenger. Charon was told, it seems, to expect ''a poet and a scholar.'' Housman answers, ''I think that must be me.''
A sense of the double self, and the difficulties of reconciling opposing forces, pervades the evening. One is always aware of the roads Housman might have taken, of the lives he didn't lead. Wilde is the most extreme example, the flamboyant victim of passion to Housman's gray victim of passivity. ''Better a fallen rocket than never a burst of light,'' Wilde proclaims.
Then there are the two Housmans played by Mr. Easton and Mr. Leonard. And I am happy and relieved to report that when the old man meets his younger self toward the end of the first act, there is definite chemistry between the two.
Mr. Stoppard avoids the sentimental spasms of regret common to such scenes, as the men realize they have quite a bit -- though certainly not everything -- in common. The young Housman doesn't recognize his older self, of course, and the older man takes a while to identify the lad he once was. The scene is all the more moving for the playwright's and the actors' understatement.
Mr. Leonard has the easier of the two roles, but he does it beautifully, capturing both the arrogance and the awkwardness of a personality that has yet to shut down into hermetic self-containment. The way young Housman flinches when his beloved Jackson shakes his hand or cuffs his shoulder is eloquent with confused desire. (One wishes that Mr. Harbour's loutish Jackson, the inspiration for all those Hellenic boys of Shropshire, seemed a bit more worthy of desire.)
Representing the older version of someone whose life was, as he says, ''marked by long silences,'' Mr. Easton cannily finds the spark and color in Housman's stoicism and repression. He scales up the passion in Housman's scholarly fervor and the acid in his drollery.
Speaking to an unseen student of whom he has made fun, Housman says: ''You don't mind? Oh, Miss Burton, you must try to mind a little. Life is in the minding.'' Mr. Easton very much embodies that animating force and makes sure that we mind, too.
The supporting cast is, by and large, wonderful, with theater pros like Peter McRobbie, Byron Jennings and Martin Rayner all having a fine old time incarnating English stuffiness. But there are also more subtly layered performances from Michael Stuhlbarg, as an Oxford chum who has the conventional academic career Housman did not. And Mark Nelson is superb in a sharply etched turn as a civil servant that speaks volumes about being gay in that time.
Unless you're a student of both classics and Edwardian England, I can't promise that you won't occasionally be lost or even numbed during parts of ''The Invention of Love.'' But this production has a fluid, glistening quality that will carry you along if you don't resist it.
Like the Théâtre de Complicité's stunning production of ''Mnemonic,'' now at the John Jay Theater, ''Invention'' deals in the uncertainties of memory and the impossibility of truly knowing anything, whether it's a Latin text obscured by years of emendations or a human soul. But it affectingly celebrates wanting and trying to know, something Housman describes as ''what's left of God's purpose when you take away God.'' Life is indeed in the minding; so is stirring theater.