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Dead Poets Society

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 17, 2016

Zane Pais, Thomas Mann, Bubba Weiler, William Hochman,
Yaron Lotan, Cody Kostro, and Jason Sudeikis
Photo by Joan Marcus

If you're adapting a film to the stage, so the theory goes, you'd better find a way to make it theatrical. After all, not having a camera you can place a foot away from an actor's face is a major detriment when your story turns on minute nuances that lead to big transformations. If it's not entirely clear that happens with Dead Poets Society, a production of which just opened at the Classic Stage Company, the good news is that in rethinking his own Oscar-winning 1989 screenplay as a play, Schulman has made almost no mistakes. He's kept what's needed to be kept, cut what we could (more or less) stand to lose, and ensured that the underlying feelings are intact. As far as Schulman's script, there's not much more to be hoped for.

It is what it's always been: a higher-level-than-usual approach of the classic "a brilliant teacher changes students' lives" trope. Upon returning to Welton Academy in New England in 1959, the acclaimed prep school from which he graduated once upon a time, John Keating takes on a poetry class where his first assignment to the students is to rip up the rulebook—literally. In having them destroy the introduction to a text that attempts to apply mathematical formulae to emotion and textual analysis, John proves immediately that he plans to operate in the realm of the heart rather than the head. This concept is brand new to his six young charges, and they investigate it on their own after discovering that during his time at Welton their teacher was part of a clandestine group called the Dead Poets Society that expanded the mind (and opportunities with women) through an extracurricular exploration of great verse.

The twist, though, is that this is far from an instant cure-all for everyone in this group. Yes, Todd Anderson, a stuttering young man who's struggling to live up to his brother's inflated legacy, finds his voice (literally and figuratively) when forced to speak in front of others. But in chasing a girl he's attracted to, Knox Overstreet uses unorthodox tactics that border on persecution. Charlie Dalton becomes so enraptured with John's ideas and ideals that he becomes a little too willing to sacrifice his standing at school, and possibly his future. And though Neil Perry discovers a passion for acting, his strict, medical-education-minded father squelches his son's dreams—and a lot more—once they become more than mere fly-by-night fancies.

Schulman nudges his plot along so gently, almost imperceptibly, that you're not aware of how deep in the boys are until it's too late for them to be rescued by anyone but themselves. And though there's not much question how things will ultimately shake out, Schulman works in an impressive amount of surprises right up until the very end, and pulls no punches in doing so. He depicts the good and bad sides of unfettered intellectual and emotional freedom, and highlights the necessary responsibility that undergirds it: Once you're able to say whatever words you want, are you willing and able to defend them? That, as we see, is what really separates the men from the boys.

No, Schulman hasn't solved all of the movie's problems. Even cutting one of the boys (Gerard Pitts, for the record) doesn't make it easy to give the six who remain equal attention, and the mousy Steven Meeks and the disapproving Richard Cameron are still underdeveloped. And the sour headmaster, Paul Nolan, and Neil's father still have more the whiff of generic bad guys than men who pursuing their immutable courses because they truly think them best. But Schulman's editing and compression of the rest of the script are otherwise exceptionally smart and reliably moving, particularly past the midpoint when events barrel to their destructive, yet potentially hopeful, conclusion. (The show runs about 100 minutes, with no intermission.)

As good a piece of writing as Dead Poets Society is, it's not immune to this production's highly variable direction and acting. The former comes by way of CSC Artistic Director John Doyle, who's best known for his disconnected and distancing spins on musicals (many with scores by Stephen Sondheim), and has employed a lot of his typical techniques here. Many scenes are staged and lighted (by Japhy Weideman) so you can't tell where they're supposed to be set; substituting for a genuine commitment to time and place are the unit-set backdrop of floor-to-ceiling bookcases (by Scott Pask), and the books they contain become chairs, desks, and plenty of other things to walk on (not exactly suggesting a respect for literature, but whatever); and the actors only occasionally relate to each other directly, much of the time avoiding looking at each other, or delivering lines while standing on ladders or from opposite sides of the stage.

Any performers doing this play must contend with the memories of the film's indelible stars, which include Robin Williams as John, Robert Sean Leonard as Neil, Ethan Hawke as Todd, and Josh Charles as Knox—an unenviable task. But Saturday Night Live alum Jason Sudeikis is even better than Williams as John, to my eye—he's utterly believable as both a crazy and a conservative, a radical who's learned how to "pass," which adds unexpected depth to the play as it becomes increasingly about learning to find just that balance. Sudeikis underplays throughout, but with only a faintly detectable air of slyness, so that, even though he never goes for big laughs, much of the time he gets them all the same. And William Hochman is outstanding as Knox: perfectly positioned between adolescent and adult, ceaselessly energetic, and in total grasp of both the amorous and mischievous sides that are warring for control inside him.

But except for Francesca Carpanini, who's but a momentary bright spot as Knox's intended girlfriend, no one else is remotely as good, with the actors playing the other boys (Zane Pais as Todd, Thomas Mann as Neil, Cody Kostro as Charlie, Bubba Weiler as Steven, and Yaron Lotan as Richard) veering toward the overbroad and unconvincing, when not outright mannered. David Garrison and Stephen Barker Turner do everything they can with Paul and Mr. Perry, but it's not much—you're just supposed to hiss at them move on.

One does wish Schulman had imparted the adults with as much depth as he did the kids, as that would better highlight all the triumphs and the tragedies they undergo as they struggle to find themselves in a life that's desperate for them to be someone, anyone, else. Oh well, you can't have everything. But Schulman does his level best to ensure that, with Dead Poets Society, you get everything else.

Dead Poets Society
Through December 18
Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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