The History Boys
Also see Susan's review of Stunning
Washington's Studio Theatre and director Joy Zinoman have brought their accustomed clarity and incisiveness to The History Boys, Alan Bennett's Tony and Olivier Award-winning play about education and growing up among 1980s high school students. Zinoman has forged a strong ensemble, especially in the interplay among the eight young actors who comprise the "history boys," but the anchor is the reliable Floyd King as Hector, a teacher who loves learning for its own sake rather than for any prospects of future gain.
Bennett's play pits the aging eccentric Hector against Irwin (Simon Kendall), an ambitious younger teacher brought in by the school's headmaster (James Slaughter) to prepare the history students for exams that could get them into Oxford or Cambridge rather than a less prestigious university. Where Hector engages his students in a conspiracy of learning – which, among other things, includes re-enactments of scenes from 1940s movies and a French-language improvisation set in a World War I brothel – Irwin is more interested in salesmanship, pushing the boys to distinguish themselves and their opinions from all the other students also trying to get into the top universities.
King's magnificent performance shows how Hector is both a figure of fun to his students and a genuine inspiration. While he has his quirks and underlying sadness, he also has a great heart and a concern about the role of education in life. Another standout performance comes from Tana Hicken as the boys' one female teacher, who has her own strong opinions in a male-dominated society. (Bennett sets the action in 1983, in the midst of Margaret Thatcher's tenure leading the Conservative Party as prime minister of Great Britain.)
Kendall does well enough, but he has a far less nuanced role. Where Hector has allowed his personality to shape his career, Irwin has submerged his private life in the pursuit of greater success.
Among the boys, the two who seize the audience's attention provide two extremes in personality: Posner (Owen Scott), the character inspired by the playwright, self-described as small, Jewish, gay and insecure, and Dakin (Jay Sullivan), tall, self-assured, sexually active and not afraid to pursue whatever he wants. They are delightful to watch, separately and together, as is Robert Rector as Rudge, an athlete who knows his strengths and is willing to take his chances.
Russell Metheny's scenic design uses a few pieces – a doorway, a few school desks, a couple of chairs – to convey a number of settings fluidly. Michael Lincoln's lighting design keeps things sharply focused, and Gil Thompson's sound design uses 1980s pop songs to bring the audience into the time period.