From these bare bones, the English playwright Tom Stoppard has fashioned The Invention of Love, the extraordinarily dense yet eminently theatrical play now receiving its second American production at the Wilma Theater. Set in the mind of the aged Housman, who died at the age of 77 in 1936, it begins with the scholar-poet awaiting passage across the river Styx but quickly backtracks in time to Oxford in the 1870s, as a youthful trio of Housman, Jackson and a third friend set out for a picnic in a rowboat.
But it doesn't proceed in a straight line. Unlike such earlier Stoppard mental workouts as Arcadia or Hapgood, The Invention of Love has no armature of mystery to help keep you on track. While the relationship of Housman and Jackson does develop over the course of the evening, the play is essentially a free-form collage of scenes in which various themes - love, sexuality, the uses of intellect, the fulfilled life - appear and disappear and appear again.
The aged Houseman has a long colloquy with his younger self. The brightest lights of the Oxford faculty (Benjamin Jowett, Walter Pater, John Ruskin) materialize in formal wear and angel wings, playing croquet with outsized balls on a checkerboard-patterned lawn while discussing morality, art and social order. Three fatuous journalists show up to chatter about Wilde's 1895 conviction on a charge of "gross indecency." And finally Wilde himself appears, sitting in self-imposed exile in France and lecturing the aged Housman on art, scholarship, and the life truly lived.
Don't worry if you don't get it all. Let it wash over you, savor the abundant wit, and leave the details for later. At the very least, you'll emerge from The Invention of Love with a touching portrait of a man at once noble in his love of scholarship (the love in the title cuts more than one way) and piteous in his failure to acknowledge his deeper self.
Most of all, revel in Blanka Zizka's production, a cornucopia of surprise and elan from the moment the boatman, Charon, flies into view from the rear of the theater. Panels in the white stage backdrop slide open to reveal backlit performers, including the young Housman and his chums in their Oxford rowboat. A dignified professor wheels by on a tiny bicycle. The journalists shinny down narrow poles, scattering to the far corners of the ample stage. And the Oxford sages, as noted, propel huge croquet balls on a lawn dominated by an enormous Roman head, periodically transformed in color and effect by Russell H. Champa's stunning lighting and projections.
Zizka's direction of the cast hasn't a false moment; and her actors, many of whom play double roles, are almost uniformly splendid. Martin Rayner is alternately arrogant and rueful as the adult Housman, recollecting a life "marked by long silences." Mark Alhadeff is totally believable as the poet's younger self, his eager curiosity in full flower and his wit not yet turned to acid. And there are nimble supporting performances by Edmund C. Davys, John Curless, Benjamin Lloyd, Ian Merrill Peakes, and H. Michael Walls.
Space evaporates. But before it does, applause also must be tendered Michael McGarty, for everything in the set design not already mentioned; Janus Stefanowicz, for her accurate and playful period costumes; and Adam Wernick, for incidental music that amplifies the action in ways sometimes as witty as the script itself. This is, hands down, Philadelphia theater's finest production not just of this season, but of many.
THE INVENTION OF LOVE Written by Tom Stoppard; directed by Blanka Zizka; set by Michael McGarty; costumes by Janus Stefanowicz; lighting by Russell H. Champa; music by Adam Wernick.
The cast: Mark Alhadeff, George Tynan Crowley, John Curless, Edmund C. Davys, Eli Finkelman, Lenny Haas, Benjamin Lloyd, Laurie Norton, Ian Merrill Peakes, Martin Rayner, H. Michael Walls.
Playing at: Wilma Theater, Broad and Spruce Streets, through March 26. Tickets are $25 to $40. Phone: 215-546-7824.