Centrally Dislocated


Reviewing Tea and Sympathy decades ago, Kenneth Tynan wrote that the English equivalent would be the story of “a hearty extrovert persecuted by a schoolful of dandified eggheads.” If Moses John Jackson had been persecuted rather than adored, this would be the story of Tom Stoppard’s The Invention of Love (Lyceum Theatre). Which, though unfortunate for “Mo” Jackson, would have been a good thing for The Invention of Love, a play that has, as it stands, no story, at least not in the dramatic sense. Like all the other plays under review here, it suffers from a peculiar postmodern anemia: The world’s bursting with stories, the public loves them, but artists somehow feel embarrassed about telling them. In the theater, dramatic narrative has become the last taboo.

Stoppard’s text, the most enjoyable piece of static, non-narrative intellection I’ve ever experienced in a theater, takes a longer time than most to wear out its welcome. The word games, allusions, quotations, recitations, and reinterpretations come whizzing at you in steady streams, like attackers in some metaphysical video game. If you know enough to keep up, it takes some while before you realize nothing’s happening; even then, you may be content to sit placidly as the torrent of words roars by. Bob Crowley’s sets—sparse, simple, and witty—are easy on the eyes; the acting, under Jack O’Brien’s direction, is for the most part articulate, speedy, and exact. If you find yourself unmoved and unenlightened at the end, you need feel no shame: Stoppard’s efforts to move you are all on the theoretical level, while the data by which he illuminates are so playfully streamlined for instant theatrical consumption, that mistrust is the only sensible response.

A.E. Housman is Stoppard’s nominal subject, and if you come away from the evening with the notion that he was a repellent, pedantic Dryasdust, whose poems are the pathetic yelps of a heart sealed off from feeling, you are only repeating what Stoppard’s word-cascade has taught, though I doubt that this was his intended lesson. Stoppard presumably hoped to make audiences empathize with Housman, but the play gives them little opportunity, and its hip-hopping from topic to topic, in this newly shortened text, keeps distracting you from the central topic.

Things were different in Arcadia, for me still Stoppard’s only real play. There passion and reason, nature and order, entropic destiny and human will all slugged things out together openly. The author had a personal stake in the action (the heroine bore his name), but there were no easy answers. Here, no such luck: Under the gilded verbal scrollwork, every issue’s settled with one-dimensional terseness. Housman, a brilliant scholar, failed his exams? He must have wanted to come to London and live with Mo Jackson. The Wilde trial made homosexual acts impossible for him? He took out his frustrations by savaging rival scholars in print. The speed and breeziness with which Stoppard disposes of his hero’s life leave pretty much every question you’d want to ask unanswered.

Instead you get a lot of amusing surface chat surveying Victorian views on art and beauty, journalism, law, sexuality, the place of the classics in English education, and most of all Latin poetry. Reviewers have complained that the play’s actual hero is Housman’s antithesis, Oscar Wilde, to whom Stoppard has certainly granted an intensity of belief and an expressive passion his Housman never attains, but even Wilde pales beside the figures most adoringly dwelt on, Catullus and Propertius: Stoppard lingers over their poetry so tenderly that you begin to wonder why he didn’t just write a play about ancient Rome instead. Housman’s poetic gifts, in contrast, get no more than a cursory glance. Stoppard’s ultimate snub is to have Wilde—whose own poems are the least of his literary achievements—deliver a crushing final dismissal of both Housman’s made-up Shropshire and the dry reclusiveness of his life. But the comparison itself is factitious, a point brought home when Stoppard lets Wilde triumph by dropping all the famous names he hobnobbed with—as if Housman, one of seven children brought up in a nowhere town on the Welsh border, could compete with the pampered son of socially prominent Dubliners.

The script’s unreasonable complaint—that Housman wasn’t Wilde—would be less important if it conveyed more, dramatically, of who he was. This nowhere happens; even in the dying Housman’s colloquies with his younger self, the subject is Latin poetry, the life not of the characters but of people even further removed from them than they are from us. And even these elegiac scenes are buried allusions, presumably inspired by Max Beerbohm’s famous series of caricatures, “The Old and the Young Self,” just as young Housman’s rowing trips with Jackson and his fellow classicist Pollard are, for Stoppard, a set of allusions to Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat. The evening’s one genuine moment of drama, the scene in which Housman confesses his love to Jackson, is quickly drowned in the floods of abstrusity, never to reemerge. The rest, as the Victorians used to say, is gas and gaiters.

The actors work very hard, some of them with beautiful results: Robert Sean Leonard’s haunted young Housman, Daniel Davis’s smugly dimpling Wilde, Martin Rayner’s prim Pater, and raffish Frank Harris are all of exceptional caliber. Jeff Weiss triggers all of Charon the ferryman’s laughs; Mark Nelson, as Housman’s knowing office chum, is the evening’s lodestar of emotional truth. And Richard Easton, making his way through the lengthy central role with grace, steady energy, and pathos, should probably be declared unofficial winner of this year’s marathon just for getting all those speeches to dance so easily off his tongue.

There’s a story of sorts in Abby Mann’s Judgment at Nuremberg (Longacre Theatre), an ancient TV play/screenplay dredged up by the National Actors Theatre, but it’s the kind of story TV prefers, with the goods and bads neatly predecided, a few hints of ambiguity sketched in to make the material look meaningful, and a jolly feast of moral indignation for all. Unless, that is, you care about matters like history, truth, and morality, or have some slight acquaintance with the billions of pages of data and recollection that make Mann’s glib visit to the Nuremberg trials sound like a first-grade book report. John Tillinger’s production, flat, fancily multimediated, and slow, does little to enhance Mann’s tinhorn notion of debate, or his Perry Mason ideas of courtroom procedure, except in giving some very fine actors a chance to grandstand. George Grizzard, ripely backwoodsy and crisp, invests the hick district-court judge with Lincolnesque dignity; Marthe Keller, as a Nazi general’s widow, partners him with fervor and elegance. Best of all is Maximilian Schell, whose great outburst, as the Nazi judge on trial, is one of the finest pieces of high stage rhetoric I’ve seen in decades. There’s good work, too, from Robert Foxworth, Michael Hayden (free of smarminess for once), Patricia Connolly, Peter Francis James, and Michael Mastro, but the evening still seems rather longer than World War II.

The home front’s a drag, too, in Evan Smith’s Servicemen (St. Clement’s), chiefly thanks to Sean Mathias’s glum, murky New Group production, in which the characters snap and screech charmlessly at each other all evening long, till a lecture on Propertius would seem cheerier. Smith evokes the nightlife of wartime Manhattan convincingly; flickering through the murk are occasional glints that another draft might give his nebulous tidbits of story some narrative substance; currently it seems to be trying out alternate tracks, and to be derailed from both by the production’s artsy negativity. A married woman and a gay man cruise the nightspots, picking up unformed uniformed lads. The male half of this undangerous liaison is ultimately driven to enlist himself, either because he rebuffed the love of a sailor who died, or from some arcane sense of obligation to his female pal, or possibly both. A different director might clear matters up. In the uneven cast, Olivia Birkelund and Steven Polito gave hints of being able to do more than snipe and snarl.

The company of England’s Theatre de Complicité—which I translate as “Theater of Guilt”—can do a great many things, gymnastic, linguistic, and visual. There are only two things it’s incapable of: concision and coherence. It can’t make any theatrical gesture without making it five times over and four times as ornate as it needs to be; and it can’t tell a simple story without piling on extraneous theoretical crud till the narrative crumbles under the weight of its accrued pretensions. Mnemonic (John Jay College Theatre), an inane but visually appealing show in which two interminable shaggy-dog stories are woven together as an unconvincing illustration of chaos theory, might be a harmless half-hour kiddie show for a natural history museum. Instead it’s been bloated into an intermissionless two hours and palmed off as an adult theatergoing experience. Experience is the wrong word, though: After one mildly sly theatrical trick at the opening, it slides into a decorative monotony that suggests the Discovery Channel used as wallpaper. As Catullus said, “Nox est perpetua et una dormienda.” Bring a pillow.