Poets may be personae non grata in American culture (unless they carry guitars), but sometimes they do all right on Broadway. Langston Hughes had some success writing for the New York stage, while actress Julie Harris is still most closely identified with her role as Emily Dickinson in the solo show The Belle of Amherst. Now two performers are reaping raves for playing a single poet: in The Invention of Love, Robert Sean Leonard and Richard Easton play A. E. Housman at different stages of the English scribe's life. Both the play and the two actors are nominated for American Theatre Wing Tony Awards.
More than that, though, the play is popular, despite having a complicated and linguistically challenging script by Tom Stoppard. Asked at the May 16 Tony Awards brunch why he thought the play overcame its seemingly uncommercial aspects to become one of the season's hotter dramas, Easton told Playbill On-Line and Tonys.org, "It's something [director] Jack O'Brien and -- I think -- I are good at: funny. Jack goes for funny. And the first scene is sitcom-funny; it has gags in fact. Audiences relax at that point, because they've been anticipating all this stygian gloom. But that's very much Stoppard's method. There are these abstruse jokes and puns, but those are on the surface of everything. All the Latin in the play is translated. It's all clear and totally accessible. The play is beautifully written, and Stoppard makes you feel clever."
The Invention of Love has proved enough of a draw to extend from a limited run to a semi-open run; they're selling tickets through Labor Day, and if sales hold up, then through Christmas. Easton says he's curious how the show will play to a less New York-y insider crowd. "We've had the cream of New York audiences to this point, so it will be interesting to see how it plays when the tourists and such come in. Still, so far the signs are good. At the Lyceum, the balcony is half the house, and that's been selling very well."
Easton, who took a long hiatus from New York to help run the MFA theatre program at the University of San Diego, says he's missed the city and hopes to do more even here even after Invention ends. "In California I lived on the beach, essentially, and idled, eating locusts and wild honey. But I love New York City, which is on a kind of benevolent cycle at the moment."
One project that he says may happen is a re-mount of a 1999 Williamstown Festival staging of Tennessee Williams' Camino Real. "Nicky Martin's directing again, and they're trying to bring that in with most of the original cast-members," said Easton. "Blair Brown, Ethan Hawke, Kristine Nielsen. Sometime in 2002." The Invention of Love has as its central character the conservative, not to say dour, 19th-century English poet and scholar A.E. Housman (1859-1936). Stoppard's story begins with Housman, old and infirm, dreaming he is dead and being ferried across the river Styx by the mythical boatman Charon, but soon spotting scenes from his younger days at Oxford. Housman is best known for his collection of poems titled "A Shropshire Lad." According to Invention of Love's production notes, Housman expressed his lifelong unrequited passion for a fellow student at Oxford, Moses Jackson, through his melancholy, forlorn poetry. Robert Sean Leonard and Richard Easton play Housman young and old, respectively, and even share a long scene in the first act, in which the older man feelingly lectures the younger about the career in textual study of Greek and Latin which the latter will eventually pursue.