Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The History Boys

‘HISTORY BOYS’ gets an A at Beck

Snow wiped out the first two performances of ‘THE HISTORY BOYS’ at Beck Center, but when the curtain finally went up for Alan Bennett’s six-time Tony Award winning play, the audience quickly knew that it was worth slogging through the snow.

As one British reviewer stated about the play in its initial performance, “If I had to single out the season's most intelligent, exhilarating evening of theater, Alan Bennett's idea and humor rich play would win hands down.” I tend to agree with him.

The setting, a grammar school in England during the 1980s. Grammar schools in Britain are the equivalent of U.S. public high schools. The students, like American seniors are concerned about getting into a prestigious university. The question arises, at what cost?

The story follows a group of male students who are being prepared for their Oxford entrance exams by three teachers, each with contrasting styles. Irwin, a young hotshot, teaches the essay style of generalities flavored with some facts and quotes. He basically believes the truth is irrelevant. It parallels the way the author, himself, learned to prepare. Hector, a senior member of the faculty, teaches knowledge with a bent toward English Literature with an eye on on a well-rounded education. Exams are the enemy of all that he stands for. Mrs. Lintott has taught the boys the basics of history and is unconcerned about the approach of their writing, only that they know history.

The play blends both comedy and tragedy, with multiple layers and themes, including the subtleties of growing up, the purposes of education, teaching philosophies, homosexuality, and the English education system.

The play opened in London in 2004 in a limited engagement and played to sold out audiences. It reopened in 2005, again to packed houses. It came to Broadway in 2006 and swept the Tony Awards. The script was transformed into a movie which featured the original stage cast.

Just as American scripts are often hard for the English to produce, British material is difficult for American actors and directors. Not only are the accents daunting, but the tone and pacing of the material is often hard to develop.

Director Sarah May grasps the underbelly of the play and has worked with the actors to develop clear and consistent characters. Whether they are speaking, being “other” students in the classroom, or interacting with each other, the boys uniformly develop individual personalities. The pacing is appropriate, the conflicts well pitched, the humor nicely developed.

Dana Hart (Hector) and Dan Folino (Irwin) are excellent as the teachers with conflicting views of the world of education. As with the students, they develop clear and consistent characterizations. Dede Klein (Mrs. Lintott) is excellent as the fulcrum between the opposing forces of her fellow faculty members. Michael Regnier perfectly portrays Felix Armstrong, as the up-tight Headmaster.

All of the students deserve hurrahs. Matthew Martin Thomas is impressive as Posner, who is undersized, Jewish and gay and in search of self-identity. Stuart Hoffman (Rudge) continually looks like he is appropriately in a state of confusion as the “dumb” jock. Adam Day Howard effectively develops Scripps, the pianist and religious moralist. Eric Fancher is totally believable as Dakin, the charismatic, sexual mastermind of the group, who uses his powers to overwhelm his classmates, the young female school secretary, as well as the occasional teacher.

There is an excellent attention to detail in the production that is reflected not only in the performances but in Trad A. Burns’ set and lighting.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Beck’s ‘THE HISTORY BOYS’ is one of those productions that must be seen. Do so before it becomes history on March 30.