The Playgoer: REVIEW: History Boys

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Saturday, June 10, 2006

REVIEW: History Boys

History Boys
by Alan Bennett
directed by Nicholas Hytner
on Broadway at the Broadhurst Theatre

Almost more interesting than History Boys the play is History Boys: The Phenomenon. The trades are reporting that this London transplant production recouped its total investment within six weeks! (Such is the value of selling out a thousand seats a night at over $75 a pop.) It seems to have taken on a life all its own in New York, independent of its original production and independent even of the specific text. It's the perfect cultural theatre product for the wealthy New York audience. First, it's about that audience's favorite subject, getting your kids into college! Throw in plenty of references to literature, old movies, cute boys with British accents and school ties, and you've got box office gold. The sympathetic portrayal of a gay pedophiliac teacher (or two) might have rocked the boat, but he's just so clever and well-spoken and...well, British! No matter how much doubt and cynicism playwright Alan Bennett riddles his characters with, the British Empire is alive and well at the Broadhurst. For the UK, it has proved the perfect "cultural export."

But I digress. Bennett is a more thoughtful, skillful, and honest writer than the hype surrounding the play might suggest. (And, as is known to anyone still devoted to Beyond the Fringe, his humor is inherently satiric, not cuddly.) History Boys may be a tad romantic and nostalgic about the ideals of liberal education and art for art's sake, and reductionist in warning about mercenary educational practices, but it's heartfelt and expressed through rich and engaging characters. What helps the play most is the outstanding production by Nicholas Hytner and a "deep bench" of an ensemble cast who sell the characters for everything they're worth. The star, Richard Griffiths, deserves all the praise dolloped on him--but not because his portrait of the doomed beloved teacher is a "bravura" scene-stealing turn. His naturally rotund and hefty presence does dominate the stage, sure, but it's the mildness in his voice and body language that make such an impression. His first act "finale" scene is an anti-aria of a monologue--a moment so quiet and internal one has to lean forward in one's (balcony) seat just to see and hear it. I've never felt a stage actor drawing me in so intensely. That the text of the monologue is not an outright confessional but an explication of a Thomas Hardy poem makes it an acting challenge; Griffith's gift is in communicating his character's moment of crisis through words other than the obvious. It is a triumph of obliqueness for actor and playwright alike.

Hytner has assembled a uniformly strong cast of seemingly novice but in fact highly skilled young stage actors to play the boys. The credibility of his youthful sensibility balances out Bennett's old fogey-ness well. He exploits the play's 1980s setting with some scene-change-covering MTV-style videos of the boys at school, setting the theatre hopping with Duran Duran and the Cure et al. I personally liked the energy of it all, even though it certainly seemed out of a different play. Bennett writes from the teachers' point of view; Hytner gives us the boys'....But Hytner's proficiency and showmanship here go way beyond such "gimmicks." His attention to the performances--the specificity of the characterizations and the intensity of their motivations--make for some seemingly simple but highly calibrated great scenes. The sometimes meandering and time-jumping action is kept incredibly fluid--with the help of a self-effacing yet perfect morphing set by Bob Crowley that isn't afraid to recall the grey cinder-block quality of a visually unexciting second rate prep school. (Crowley's design expertise is probably more on display here than in his more high paying Tarzan gig nearby).

So I suppose I'm saying see History Boys for the craft more than the content. I don't hold against the play its success in flattering and tranquilizing its high-paying Broadway audience--and hence its apparent lock on the Tonys. Good artists are at work here. And while the play goes back on itself a number of ways and didn't satisfy me as a serious contribution to the education debate, I can't deny the high caliber of talent on display.

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