KPBS AIRDATE: August 26, 2005
Biography provides a fertile field for dramatization. Biopics abound on small screen and large, with varying degrees of success. Same goes for theater. Right now, occupying opposite ends of the profundity spectrum, we’ve got plays about a man of letters and a woman of letters: “The Invention of Love” at Cygnet Theatre and “The Lady with All the Answers” at the Old Globe. One is a lightweight look at Ann Landers, the other a ponderous consideration of English poet and classics scholar A.E. Housman. Neither is theatrically satisfying.
Acclaimed playwright Tom Stoppard is known for his flights of linguistic and academic fancy. But “The Invention of Love” is so thick with arcane references, abstruse allusions and Latin quotations, that there’s a 60-page study guide for sale in the Cygnet lobby. Structurally, the drama is thrilling, if challenging. It’s a dream play, in which Housman, who died in 1936, is at the end of his 77-year life, looking backward and forward, imagining his death and reliving scenes from his life, which allows him to interact, quite intriguingly, with his younger self and with other dearly departed. Although there are a few humorous moments, director Sean Murray and his talented cast make almost every scene fraught and portentous, every speech pompous or pedantic. The first act is heavy slogging, setting the stage for the real heart of the matter: Housman’s secret love of his attractive, athletic Oxford schoolchum, for whom he pines his whole life. Late in the second act, this melancholy path of loss and regret is contrasted with the profligacy of Oscar Wilde, whose flamboyant homosexual honesty got him two years of hard labor and death in exile. The juxtaposition is striking, and should be the centerpiece of the play. But it’s a long, slow road to get there, despite an excellent ensemble and marvelous scenic, lighting and costume design.
Now, if you don’t want to think that hard – or at all – hop over to the Globe for David Rambo’s “Lady with All the Answers.” The subject, Ann Landers, is potentially captivating. A woman who, responding to incisive questions from her 60 million readers, defined the social and sexual concerns of America for nearly half a century. In this solo show, Randy Graff plays the woman born Eppie Lederer, writing her most difficult column, the one in 1975 that announced her divorce to her devotees. We get a few flashbacks, some love and hate mail, but precious little insight into the real woman or her motivations. Though she’s an engaging performer, under Tom Moore’s direction, Graff exudes a kind of smirky self-satisfaction that belies the sensitivity and compassion of the newspaper columns that informed and consoled generations.
But fascinating lives don’t always make for scintillating theater.
©2005 Patté Productions Inc.