Although his granting permission to ACT (and longtime ally Carey Perloff) suggests optimism at work, Tom Stoppard has lately gone on record anticipating “The Invention of Love’s” U.S. preem as a noble folly — surely Yanks can’t be expected to “get” a work so densely coded in Oxford, academia, and quoted antiquity. If only every false prediction turned out so happily. “Invention” does indeed have its fleeting moments of insularity, preciousness and attenuation. A Stateside audience will have to pay attention, but then isn’t that why we go to Stoppard plays? The tiny flaws discernible in an otherwise perfect evening shouldn’t distract from the fact that he may never have written anything better — more beautiful, or more pained. Whether this will mean much in the commercial sector (Broadway having already dangled, then withdrawn, the invite) is already a moot point. In San Francisco, and elsewhere in U.S. nonprofit spheres, this 1997 “Invention” will be a big hit indeed.
Not as big as “The Real Thing,” of course, a play with which it shares Subject A. Nor is “Invention’s” complex structure as accessible as the riddling “Arcadia,” let alone “Shakespeare in Love” — its questions about love and creative expression lack a cogent answer as much as they lack the air of celebration. “Invention” is a melancholy memory play that finds no comfort, or fulfillment, in the past. Yet the nostalgia — operating on too many levels here to count — provides its own exquisitely verbose, yearning intoxication.
The life reviewed is that of esteemed classics scholar and semi-closeted poet A.E. Housman (1859-1936), whose lifelong unrequited love for an erstwhile Oxford classmate became public knowledge only posthumously. That juncture is the play’s starting point: A 77-year-old Housman (James Cromwell) crosses the River Styx en route to Hades, piloted by the dour, black-clad boatman Charon (Steven Anthony Jones). But there are many phantom detours before destination is reached.
The principal being Oxford of the early 1880s, where Housman (Jason Butler Harner) was a scholarship student doomed to fail out, whether from distraction or disdain. Providing the first was “Mo,” aka Moses John Jackson (Garret Dillahunt), whose science studies seemed a forgivable irrelevancy beside his golden, athletic beauty. Fueling Housman’s disdain were a chorus of celebrated classics profs — forever caught playing cricket or badminton here, while discoursing in dead languages — whose theories Housman would eventually make his name by dismissing.
Between the “Brideshead”-type raptures of campus homoeroticism and postmortem regret, a lot of career-driving bitterness has time to brew. At age 26 Housman is a lowly civil servant, his “real” work undemanding enough to allow a sideline in publication triumphs — which duly win the academy’s stung appreciation. But he’s also ever-more-dependent on a hopeless ideal of “platonic” friendship with the heterosexual Mo. When a reluctant Housman admits to “the love that dare not speak its name,” that word expands to create permanent silence between them in the play’s most devastating scene.
But not its last, or even close, unfortunately. “Invention” doesn’t quite know where to quit, discovering too many worthy valedictorians: Chamberlain (Matthew Boston), who guesses the post-college protag’s “secret” and shares it; Oscar Wilde (Marco Barricelli, more typically cast in the anti-fop mold of Stanley Kowalski), who briefly overlapped at Oxford and later rode his own unrequited “secret” to public ruin; plus Housman himself, both Early edition and Late. Cromwell’s latter defines his tragedy in act one, saying, “Love will not be deflected from its mischief by being called ‘comradeship’… or anything else.” Everyone repeats variations on that insight as the play, and Mo, ever-so-elegaically slide from view.
Perhaps a work so heady with ideas — other people’s ideas — should know better when to stop quoting. (Enough already about the Sacred Tribe of Thebes.) On the other hand, “The Invention of Love” is too sweet, poignant and restive to beg shutting up. It’s a “dream play” whose eras, metaphors, confessions blur, defying the neat wrap. Stoppard’s knotty structure draws out director Perloff’s most meticulous care: The set (by Loy Arcenas) is poetic minimalism, with a sole patch of sculptural green for sheepish boys to swoon on. James F. Ingalls’ lighting is all discreet shadows, with Michael Roth’s very pretty score drifting in and out. Only a lily-clutching Wilde — the embarrassing “aesthete” among shamed pedants — flames purple amid the sober tweeds of Deborah Dryden’s period costumes.
The large cast is note- and accent-perfect, though 6-foot 7-inch stage-to-film star Cromwell’s (“Babe,” “L.A. Confidential”) dry, competent, declamatory reading may strike one as more diffident than moved. His intelligent turn communicates a master scholar’s acerbic authority, but little sense of personal loss.
Of course, if “Invention” weren’t all about abject self-denial, it would be a comedy — overall, rather than in glittering shards. At heart this play’s bemused melancholy is as old-school as they come. The New British Miserabilism of “Shopping and Fucking” et al. makes a rude noise very much elsewhere while Stoppard, tinkling out Chopin excerpts, suggests that lovers and the art they inspire are never really disposable. That anachronistic notion lingers long after the play — three hours gone in a blink — floats off.