Stoppard Unstoppered

The Invention of Love IS Tom Stoppard’s most literary play yet. Ostensibly, it is about A. E. Housman’s unrequited love for the heterosexual Moses Jackson, and about Housman’s more nearly fulfilled passion for scholarship. Also about how the pessimistic poet of The Shropshire Lad coexisted in the same man with the fanatically finicky editor of Latin texts and scourge of other editors past and present. But it is mostly about Tom Stoppard’s wit, erudition, gift for persiflage, ability to bone up on any subject, dramatic flair, and even greater talent for intellectual debate along with skill in blending disparate elements into a provocative, daedally tangled web, flashes of lightning from which further dazzle an audience, and further blind it.

Having been too clever by half in several of his plays, Stoppard has lately managed to be too clever by three quarters. The result is remarkable but not really a play, if by play we mean something that can be followed by an audience with a standard education and average intelligence. By followed, I do not mean getting the general drift, but catching at least a good part of the allusions, quotations, parodistic references, wordplay, and other fine points, for fine points are Stoppard’s stock-in-trade. Plot and characterization are not completely lacking but are minimal in importance.

Even the title is almost irrelevant. It refers to the fact that before Catullus and his poems to Lesbia, there was really no such thing as love poetry in the fullest sense, and that the romantic elegy was the invention of a later poet, Propertius. But even though these things figure as part of the discussions in the play, they are not nearly so important as debates about minor points of textual criticism; one-upmanship among scholars; jokes about the afterlife in Hades or Elysium; the problems of homosexuality; the difference between someone like Housman, who represses his sexual instincts, and Oscar Wilde, who flagrantly indulges them. Both men come to grief, but the question remains: Which is the greater – or, perhaps, better – grief?

You are likely to know enough about Wilde, Ruskin, and Walter Pater, who figure prominently; if you read the program notes assiduously, you will also get a sense of Benjamin Jowett, Mark Pattison, W. T. Stead, Henry Labouchère, Frank Harris, and Jerome K. Jerome. Still, even I, knowing enough about them, as well as something about Pollard and Postgate, could not get the full impact and import of the play until I subsequently read it, wishing I had done so beforehand.

This is not to equate The Invention of Love with the likes of The Play About the Baby, which is pure flimflam, signifying nothing; there is no doubt that Stoppard’s play, unlike Albee’s, is not sheer smug mystification. But whether you say too little or too much, whether or not on the strength of your name you can get away with murder, the fact remains that it helps to take the audience into account. As the old Housman remarks in the play, “I have been practicing a popular style of lecture at Cambridge as yet confused with memories of University College” – his previous job in London – “but it’s based on noticing that there are students present.”

It seems to me that lengthy discussions of specific disputed words in the works of Horace, Catullus, and Propertius – as to, say, whether freti or feri was what the poet wrote – do not belong in a play, even if the scene is academia. Or is it? There are three somehow related boat trips: Oxford undergraduates rowing on the Cherwell, meeting up with the underworld boatman Charon ferrying souls to their final destination, and, later, the journalist-novelist Jerome K. Jerome and friends rowing past Reading gaol, where Wilde was imprisoned. There are reciprocally relevant discussions among Oxford dons and stars of the London popular press. Few of the finer points are anywhere near perspicuous, yet drama is not an abstruse poem by some poeta doctus. And where does Stoppard get off quoting Latin and Greek verse (to be sure, with translations following) when he himself, in an interview in the Lincoln Center Theater Review, misuses fortuitous in a way revealing simultaneous insensitivity to Latin and English?

This said, there is fine acting from 19 actors in 24 roles, ably headed by Richard Easton (old Housman) and Robert Sean Leonard (young Housman). Indeed, their scene together, like the scene in which Moses Jackson cottons on to his friend’s true feelings about him, are theater in the best sense. Jack O’Brien has directed with his usual savoir faire, Bob Crowley’s sets and costumes have his customary éclat, and Brian MacDevitt’s lighting may be more triumphal than ever. But if there is anything more troubling than fast food that leaves you hungry, it is a feast that does the same.

I must be the only film critic who somehow managed to finesse the movie Judgment at Nuremberg. Whether this was from antipathy for Stanley Kramer’s directorial blatancies or from sheer negligence, it has finally paid off: I came to the screenwriter Abby Mann’s adaptation of his screen- and teleplay completely unprejudiced. As such, I was steadily interested in what would happen next, and did not miss Tracy or Dietrich, Garland or Widmark. As for Maximilian Schell, he is still there, albeit in a less spectacular role. I do not think I have to tell any of a plot everyone other than me must know, and can concentrate on the adaptation and production.

James Noone’s somewhat stylized set is of the Nuremberg courtroom, its walls covered with photographs of the Nazis’ victims that can appear or disappear in various configurations. This works, though the set cannot do justice to various other locations, but justice, as we know from the play itself, may elude human powers. Jess Goldstein’s costumes are apt, and Brian MacDevitt’s lighting is, yet again, above reproach. John Tillinger has directed this National Actors Theatre production with total assurance, and the cast of 21 in 24 parts is almost perfect.

There are two exceptions: Peter Maloney, who looks a bit too comical for a German judge, and Heather Randall, who went from being an NAT intern to becoming the founder and artistic director’s wife, skipping an important intermediate step: learning to act. But what a pleasure to see an actor of the grand old school such as Joseph Wiseman and another of the contemporary school like Michael Hayden in top form side by side. Again, how delightful to have Marthe Keller, whom we loved in the movies, with us in the flesh, and to watch Michael Mastro impress as a mentally handicapped witness. Robert Foxworth and Kelly Overbey make, respectively, pointed and poignant contributions.

For contrary but complementary bravura, there are George Grizzard’s chief judge and Schell’s premier defendant. It would be glib to describe the difference in terms of American versus European provenance. Grizzard carries easeful naturalism to its greatest heights, whereas Schell relies more on histrionic panache. Both are wonderful. As for the play, I gather it loses some sequences from the movie but adds others of its own. It is not high art, but it does not lack for suspense, allows actors to shine, and provides ample food for thought.

The musical revue newyorkers spells its title in lowercase, but no case is low enough for this pile of stale jokes about life in the Big, worm-eaten Apple. Song after song indulges in stereotypical gripes we have all voiced – granted, without the dubious benefit of Stephen Weiner’s music and Glenn Slater’s lyrics – and that need no reprising. One number, “No Hurry at All” (about slow service at Starbuck’s), is fresh and funny, and one other, “I Look Great” (about face-lifts), makes it thanks to the incomparable Priscilla Lopez, who can’t do wrong – except, perhaps, in her choice of vehicles. Liz Larsen and Stephen DeRosa are nice, too; the others are merely there. But there really is no there there.

The Invention of Love
At the Lyceum Theatre.
Judgment at Nuremberg
At the Longacre Theatre.
At Manhattan Theatre Club.

Stoppard Unstoppered