Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
The History Boys
Also see Tim's review of Humor Abuse
The History Boys follows a group of eight students who are preparing to graduate from a boys' prep school in Northern England in the early 1980s. The boys love the classes taught by Hector, an eccentric who encourages his students' creativity. Anything goes in Hector's class, where the students learn about French culture by singing Edith Piaf songs and improvising a skit set in a Gallic brothel. When asked how he learns poetry in Hector's class, one of the boys replies, "He makes you want to." Meanwhile, the headmaster wants to guarantee that the students get into Oxford or Cambridge, and is concerned that Hector's teaching methods are "not curriculum-directed at all" and "unquantifiable." So the headmaster hires a new teacher, Irwin, whose goal is to prepare the students for the difficult exams that will get them into those prestigious schools. But Irwin's approach to teaching is far different from that of Hector. For Irwin, education is a way to achieve one's goals, even if that means giving a false impression; for Hector, knowledge is a virtue in and of itself ("all knowledge is precious"); for the boys, there may be no easy middle ground in their search for the truth.
Bennett's characters are fully rounded and complicated (except for the simplistically drawn, narrow-minded headmaster), and the Arden's cast does them justice. Frank X is sympathetic as Hector, maintaining his dignity even when a scandalous revelation threatens his career. Matthew Amendt does fine work as the forthright and uptight Irwin, while Maureen Torsney-Weirthe only woman in a sea of menis clearly having fun with her cynical dialogue as a perceptive fellow teacher. Terrence J. Nolen's production takes a little while to get goingthings seem too raucous and confusing for the first half hour or sobut once it settles down and finds a steady pace, it becomes a satisfying journey, as Nolen allows each of the eight students a chance to make a deep impression. Whether it's the charismatic ladies' man (Evan Jonigkeit), the jock (Brian Cowden) or the gay student, whose depiction is far from clichéd (Michael Doherty), each of the boys shows in a different way how their emotional and sexual education is as important to their development as the books which they are assigned.
Nolen's staging, on a three-quarter thrust stage, is simple and effective. When Hector and Irwin team up to teach a class together, they speak of their perspective alteringand the audience's perspective changes too, as our view of the classroom is rotated 180 degrees from our view in the rest of the play. It's a subtle and clever way of underlining the playwright's point. So is the music, which is a mash-up of British pop groups of the eighties (New Order, The Smiths, The Clash, etc.) with lyrics that occasionally comment ironically on the action.
The History Boys is a play about ideas rather than action, but in the Arden's hands, those ideas rarely seem ponderous. It may require a bit of work to keep up with it, but like the education the boys receive, it's worth the effort.
The History Boys runs through November 1, 2009 at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North Second Street. Ticket prices range from $29 to $48 (with group discounts available) and may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at 215-922-1122, online at www.ardentheartre.org or in person at the box office.