(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Cate Blouke.)
On the plus side, Tom Stoppard’s plays are generally witty, philosophical, and complex – often providing thought-provoking reflections on universal feelings and struggles (the nature of love, the meaning of life, etc.).
However, Stoppard’s prose can also veer off into the morass of hyper-intellectual banter that drags a play to a standstill.
Sadly, this happens for much of Austin Shakespeare’s production of “The Invention of Love,” playing through March 8 at the Rollins Studio Theatre.
In spite of many clearly talented performers, the show is long, tedious, and aesthetically scruffy.
An exploration of the life and unrequited love of the Victorian poet A.E. Housman, the play, according to director Ann Ciccolella, is a “kaleidoscope of memories” that is “intellectually dazzling.”
For me, that translated into a plot that was difficult to follow with rapid shifts in time and new characters popping in and out, and content that frequently felt more like a lecture than dialogue.
While it’s likely a form of blasphemy to suggest trimming the script of a living author, the three hours of Stoppard’s script probably read better in print – especially if you’re fluent in Greek or Latin.
Having performers recite Greek poetry in the original and discuss verb declension at length, however, proves interminable for an audience with less intellectual investment in the debate.
Being Stoppard, though, the show is peppered with occasional gems of dialogue and insight, particularly when put in the capable hands of the handsome and charmingly fastidious André Martin (Younger A.E. Housman).
As his elder counterpart (A.E. Housman aged 77), Philip Goodwin deftly maneuvers the demands of the role: a feisty and meticulous intellectual reaching the end of life. The scene where the two first meet is particularly engaging, as is the long anticipated entrance of Oscar Wilde (Brian Coughlin).
Sadly for everyone, however, by the time the play trudges to the climactic meeting of Housman and Wilde, there’s not enough energy left to appreciate the pathos of Wilde’s monologue.
To top it off, the set looks ramshackle with three characters crammed into half a rowboat, and the otherwise unremarkable costuming is marred by an absurd outfit for Charon, the ferryman in Hades.
Without scrupulous direction, Stoppard’s script is simply too heady and talky to be emotionally engaging, and this production doesn’t manage to pull it off.
“The Invention of Love” continues through March 8 at the Long Center. www.thelongcenter.org