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The History Boys

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History Boys
Dakin Matthews and Peter Paige
At the end of the intermission at Alan Bennett's The History Boys, I overheard audience members comment that the play was "intellectual" and "wordy." One man complained to his companion, "Where's the story here?" Indeed, in a town where you expect to be able to boil every plot down a one-sentence pitch, The History Boys is somewhat out of place. Is it about two teachers and their different approaches to education? A dispute regarding the purpose of education? A teacher's inappropriate acts with his students? An illustration of how seemingly minor decisions can result in life-changing events? A young man's awakening to the power he can exert over others? Another's search for his place in the world? The History Boys is wonderfully about all of these things.

The production is set in the 1980s, at a school in Sheffield. (The program ever-so-slightly patronizingly tells us that "the hit film The Full Monty showed a slice of this depressed community and it is from this world that the students in The History Boys are trying to escape.") The students in question are a small class of eight boys, all of whom have completed the English equivalent of high school and are studying for additional exams and interviews in order to attend Oxford or Cambridge. The headmaster of their school, hoping to increase their chances, brings in another teacher in order to give them the skills and polish he believes that they lack. And here we have the most obvious "story" in The History Boys - the conflict between the students' regular teacher, Hector, and their new exam coach, Irwin.

Hector is, in many ways, the typical non-traditional and inspirational teacher we often see in films. Teaching a class called "General Studies," Hector's sessions have the boys doing anything from comically role-playing a scene in a french brothel, to melodramatically re-enacting scenes from Hollywood films. While Hector is easily dismissive of what he teaches (he says the title of his class should be "Useless Knowledge"), he is, in fact, passionate about the boys learning for the sake of knowledge. Irwin, in contrast, is teaching with one thing in mind: getting the boys accepted into Oxford and Cambridge. He doesn't care how much the boys know. He doesn't even care whether their analysis is correct. He only wants them to be able to present their knowledge in a catchy way that will make them stand out from all of the other applicants. (Every student will be able to write about Joseph Stalin; Irwin challenges the boys to say something nice about him.) And when Irwin realizes that the "useless" things Hector is teaching can become the unique factors that distinguish the boys, conflict ensues. But it isn't a conflict about who is the "better" teacher it is the dispute over whether using the knowledge from Hector to score points with the examiners devalues Hector's attempt to teach the boys to simply learn.

If you're expecting something akin to Richard Griffiths's Tony-Award-winning, larger-than-life performance as Hector, look someplace else. Under the direction of Paul Miller, Dakin Matthews presents a Hector who is a much smaller man. Outside the classroom, he is non-controversial, almost mousy. While he has control inside the classroom, it isn't because of any strength of his character, but rather because the students allow him to be in control. Without their yielded power, Matthews's Hector is awkward and out of place, an unwanted relic of a time when education was about more than just teaching to the test. This take on Hector works it may even go some distance to explaining (although not justifying) Hector's extra-curricular fondling of some of the boys. It isn't simply a teacher using the power of his position to grope a student for his own sexual pleasure; there's something more complex motivating Hector, who is too tentative to ever try a more direct overture.

Peter Paige's Irwin also teaches only by the consent of the class. When he first tries to teach, he can make no headway as the boys exert their dominance, tossing around his ideas in a philosophical game of "keep-away." But Paige's Irwin has the unshakeable confidence that he is correct (a quality that is of questionable value when we see Irwin's eventual future in government), and he ultimately makes headway.

The natural leader of the boys is Dakin, a charismatic and bright young man who is just starting to realize exactly how far he can get by using his charm. While Seth Numrich smoothly conveys Dakin's manipulativeness (and schoolboy joy at his successes), he does not infuse the character with enough sheer magnetism for the folks in the rear of the orchestra to understand what all the fuss is about.

Alex Brightman plays Posner, an observant young man with a crush on Dakin. Brightman aims his portrayal of Posner for the funny bone, rather than the heart. While Posner could be approached rather more delicately, displaying the pain behind the jokes in a kid who is discovering how different he really is, Brightman chooses instead a squeaky voice and a lack of genuine emotion. Perhaps a decision was made that, in this production, Hector would be the sole object of audience sympathy. But dialogue late in the play suggests that one cannot truly craft Posner independent of Hector, and Matthews's sympathetic "outsider" approach to Hector virtually mandates something similar in the production's approach to Posner.

The production looks like the original, with Bob Crowley's classroom set lit by Mark Henderson's lights. The black and white video that plays over set changes is also recreated here. But, while the look is the same, the performances are not merely recreated but, in some cases, entirely reconceived. Bennett's script remains thought provoking and controversial, and this production has moments of humor and of beauty. Yet some of the choices made prevent this from being the knockout it should have been.

The History Boys runs at the Ahmanson Theatre through December 9, 2007. For tickets and information, see www.centertheatregroup.org.

Center Theatre Group Michael Ritchie, Artistic Director; Charles Dillingham, Managing Director; Gordon Davidson, Founding Artistic Director presents The History Boys by Alan Bennett. Recreated from The Nation Theatre of Great Britain production; Produced by Special Arrangement with the Original Broadway Producers. Design by Bob Crowley; Lighting Designer Mark Henderson; Sound Designers Colin Pink & Jon Gottlieb; Video Director Ben Taylor; Music Richard Sisson; Casting Erika Sellin; Video Designer Austin Switser; Production Manager Andy Ward; Production Stage Managers James T. McDermott; Stage Managers David S. Franklin & Susie Walsh; Associate Producer Neel Keller. Directed by Paul Miller; Original Direction by Nicholas Hytner.

Cast:
Akthar Ammar Ramzi
Crowther Demond Robertson
Dakin Seth Numrich
Lockwood Adam Armstrong
Posner Alex Brightman
Rudge Cord Jackman
Scripps Brett Ryback
Timms Sean Marquette
Headmaster H. Richard Greene
Mrs. Lintott Charlotte Cornwell
Hector Dakin Matthews
Irwin Peter Paige
TV Director John Apicella
Make-Up Lady Elizabeth West
Other Boys Ryder Bach, Andrew McClain, Edward Tournier


Photo: Craig Schwartz


- Sharon Perlmutter






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