A.E.I.O.U.

The Invention of Love

The last time one of Tom Stoppard's plays had its American premiere in San Francisco, last spring, I wrote that it "wouldn't be above Stoppard to spin a whole script around a minor and meaningless point of grammar." My point was that the theater world's favorite established avant-garde playwright has a pedantic streak worthy of an Oxford professor, although he skipped college altogether in the '60s.

Stoppard's new play, The Invention of Love, bears out my observation. It's about Oxford classicists, for one thing; some of them even decline Latin verbs onstage. But the crucial difference between this play and last year's Indian Ink is that pedantry doesn't drive the plot. And this production has enough fine acting in it to make the show a rare thing in theater -- a lavish, well-controlled dream.

The play opens with A.E. Housman on the river Styx. Charon floats across a stage made gloomy under watery light. He thinks he's looking for two men, "a poet and a scholar," but Housman is both. By Housman's death in 1936, he was considered the best classical scholar in England; during the 1890s, as a clerk in a patent office, he also published a famous book of poems called The Shropshire Lad. The poems betray a squelched but lifelong passion for Moses Jackson, one of Housman's Oxford chums.

Two Ages of Housman: James Cromwell (right) with Jason Butler Harner.
Kevin Berne
Two Ages of Housman: James Cromwell (right) with Jason Butler Harner.

Details

By Tom Stoppard. Directed by Carey Perloff. Produced by the American Conservatory Theater. Starring James Cromwell, Jason Butler Harner, Garret Dillahunt, and Steven Anthony Jones. Scenery by Loy Arcenas. At the Geary Theater, 415 Geary (at Mason), through Feb. 13. Admission is $11-55; call 749-2228

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Since England in the 1890s was also witness to Oscar Wilde's rise and fall -- Wilde's flamboyant aestheticism, his open homosexuality -- the play becomes not just a memory play of Housman's closeted affections but also a drama of tweedy tradition vs. the colorful burgeoning 20th century, of classicism vs. romanticism. "I lived at the turning point of the world where everything was waking up new," Wilde says in a powerful speech to Housman, "the New Drama, the New Novel, New Journalism, New Hedonism, New Paganism, even the New Woman. Where were you when all this was happening?"

"At home," says Housman.

In real life the two writers probably never met, but they did share a year at Oxford, and Stoppard has fun making references to Wilde's scandalous bons mots and pranks in the scenes from Housman's youth. It turns out that the young and brilliant Housman was not completely un-romantic. As a meticulous student of Latin and Greek he disparages Wilde's reckless behavior and velvet clothes, but at the end of four years he also fails his exit exams and takes the humble patent-office job. "You were cleverer than any of us, Hous!" Moses says, incredulous that his friend could have thrown off a career as a professor. "But here we are, you and I," answers Housman. "We eat the same meals in the same digs, catch the same train to work in the same office, I've got time to do classics ...." It ain't velvet knickers, but it's something.

The play meanders through abstruse arguments about Latin and Greek, silly professors playing croquet, back-room conversations among smoking journalists, Moses' track meets, and rowing excursions on the Styx and Thames. It's slow going, especially if you haven't read the script. A woman sitting next to me fell asleep three times during the first act. But under all the surface stodginess is a quietly urgent love story, a summing-up of a life.

Jason Butler Harner does a flawless and energetic job as the young Housman, full of ambition and repressed passion that comes out as nervous acrimony toward other classical scholars. James Cromwell is the stately but sad Housman at 77, the year of his death, reserved and wistful and only slightly less acrimonious. Whenever the two of them meet, in Stoppard's shadow-world of memory, the play catches fire. The elder Housman would like to inform his younger self that reading classical authors isn't the pinnacle of experience it seems to the talented student; he wants to turn the enthusiastic boy's narrow attention toward life itself.

Marco Barricelli's Oscar Wilde wakes up the theater with his portentous phrase-making and colorful clothes, mincing around with a lily in his hand or lazing with a book of Housman's poems in the paper-lamp-and-streamer wreckage of a jubilee. "Forgive me," he says, "I'm somewhat the worse for -- cake," and we know he doesn't mean cake. By the time Housman meets him in the play Wilde has been disgraced as a sodomite. But he's defiant: "I made my life into my art and it was an unqualified success," he says. "I banged Ruskin's and Pater's heads together, and from the moral severity of one and the aesthetic soul of the other I made art a philosophy that can look the 20th century in the eye. I had genius, brilliancy, daring, I took charge of my own myth." He swaggers pompously, and the speech gives Barricelli the chance to be catty, sensitive, and diabolically proud all at once.

Ruskin and Pater are two Oxford professors famous to history as critics; in the show they're played by Ken Ruta and Michael Santo. Ruta also does a colorful, salty job as Henry Labouchère, a journalist and member of Parliament, and Santo is funny as his Irish colleague, W.T. Stead. ("Is it true you caught a mouse in the Gazette office and ate it on toast?" "Perfectly true," says Stead.) ACT casts tend to be solid at the core but loose around the edges, but this one is strong on every level. The only disappointment is Steven Anthony Jones, who's miscast as Charon. Jones does well in loud and hearty roles like Mr. Peachum in Threepenny Opera, but as the shrouded ferryman on the Styx he has too much enthusiasm, bellowing mordantly witty comments to the second balcony.

The Invention of Love resonates through a half-dozen layers of meaning; Stoppard nests puns in his scenes as well as in his dialogue. Wilde appears not just as Wilde but also as Bunthorne, a Gilbert & Sullivan character based on Wilde; Housman's school friends row a boat along a river that could be the Styx or the Thames, and morph into the characters of Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat (to Say Nothing of the Dog). Who was Jerome? Well, he precipitated Wilde's downfall by accusing him of being a sodomite. These bits of trivia don't drive the story -- you don't need to know them -- but Carey Perloff's production pays attention to their nuances, and the result is a quietly powerful show.

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