Regional Reviews: St. Louis
The History Boys
Also see Sarah's review of Hedda Gabler
The History Boys, enjoying an excellent debut west of the East River, had just spent all of act one bombarding us with flashes of poetry and thunderous bombast (and a torrent of schoolboy humor). And after all of that, one young man in the lobby (barely 30 years old) could only sputter, "I hate it. I hate it!"
I think he felt so strongly because playwright Alan Bennett had played a trick on him, and on me, and perhaps on all of us: without any warning, The History Boys had turned us into teenagers once more. Along with the boys on stage, we had just marked the end of childhood with something like an Irish wake, even as teachers skewered us with dire warnings about the future. Finally, at intermission, we filed out into the lobby feeling faintly like the young lady in the magician's box: wanting to scream over each new sword of worry and confusion plunging deep inside. A lesser production may not capture this contagious panic, so hurry on in for a look.
In act two, the academic storm of poetry and badgering quiets down considerably, and compelling characters and conflicts take center-stage. The gap-year (spent preparing for university entrance exams) becomes the corrupt Weimar Republic between World Wars I and II (or, more literally, between high school and college) even as history itself becomes more and more dubious.
This kind of British play comes along every 40 years or so, like The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, in which an eccentric teacher gives her all for her students, only to be destroyed in the end. Before that there was Goodbye, Mr. Chips. The History Boys is just as worthy, and perhaps more so, because of that painful act one age-regression in the audience, and the trial staged in act two against what we think and believe about the world and ourselves.
Thomas Carson is amazingly good as the voluble teacher, cracking the whip like a lion tamer over the heads of his students, who are all superb under the direction of Steven Woolf. Eric Gilde is the golden boy of these golden boys, too smooth for his own good, as Dakin. Matt Leisy (as Scripps) shows great charisma, thrilled to be an adult at last. And Jonathan Monk (as Posner) is what we used to call the "sensitive" boy, full of charming, wistful longing, and singing admirably throughout. He is ably accompanied by Mr. Leisy on the piano.
Bryant Richards is terrific as a visiting contract teacher who sends ripples through the faculty, locking horns with the older teacher and learning his secrets about education. Anderson Matthews and Carolyn Swift are excellent as always (here as headmaster and teacher), setting out an often-tawdry story, rife with symbolism. Steven Pierce and Charles Sydney Hirsh blend in seamlessly in the nearly non-speaking (but rambunctious) student roles of Crowther and Lockwood.
High points in the show include Adam Farabee's devilish performance as Timms, camping it up as a French chambermaid; Bhavesh Patel's exuberant work as Akthar; and Brian White's occasional comments as Rudge, the hopeless jock. But Ms. Swift proves the wittiest of them all with several of her own monologs. And, near the end, the boys find out that questioning their own personal histories (in their Oxbridge entrance exams) is the real key to youthful success.
Through September 30, 2007 on the Browning Mainstage at the Loretto-Hilton Center. For more information, visit them on-line at www.repstl.org or call (314) 968-4925.
Artistic Director: Steven Woolf