This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.
It is tempting to write off Alan Bennett's The History Boys as just another well-written play about a group of British prep school mates. The History Boys is very smart, very British; but it's not a simply another Dead Poets Society or To Sir With Love-style inspirational drama. No, this is the one with the teacher who touches each of his student's minds and some of his student's balls. (Off-stage, thankfully.) The History Boys is a rollicking piece of good, mostly clean, theatrical entertainment.
In the second act, one of the students defines "apotheosis" as "a perfect example of its type." Indeed, The History Boys is the apotheosis of a 21st century non-musical play: It doesn't demand too much from audiences. It's stuffed with cultural references, scored with spiky brit-pop music from the 1980's, and spliced with filmed segments (projected above the stage) to make sure the two-and-half-hour long show never gets dull to people with iPods. It's a crowd pleaser, but in the best sense of the word—and much of The History Boy's critical and box-office success is due to its original cast, who were all uniformly excellent.
Last month, The History Boys finally made it to Los Angeles in a re-staging of the original Nicholas Hytner production...but without any of the original cast—and with only one British actor.
The good news is: Bennett's play doesn't get lost in translation. The History Boys you see at the Ahmanson is many regards, more or less what audiences saw in London or on Broadway. H. Richard Green, Charlotte Cornwell, and Peter Paige acquit themselves nicely in performances that are faithful to, but not facsimiles of, of the original actors who played the History Adults.
The only significant shortcoming is surprisingly not in the lead role of Hector (more on him later), but in the History Boys themselves. The eight honors students were originally played with such wit, sparkle and charm that one was blissfully diverted--most importantly, diverted from the play's flaws. Here, the eight, young American actors can only be faulted for A- work instead of A+; but as a result of this slightly diminished chemistry and verve, the cracks in Bennett's script are much more easily detected.
A funny thing though, The History Boys experience benefits in someway from these less polished performances. The original cast almost promised too much. Seeing them on Broadway, the first act was so much fun and brimmed with so many ideas that I was sure the second act would resolve all its brilliance perfectly. It didn't and still doesn't. The play glides to a satisfying conclusion, but many of Bennett's narrative and thematic threads seem twisted out of shape to get there.
The History Boys is not a masterpiece—though it does have one scene, where Hector and his student discuss a Thomas Hardy poem, that is a classic:
Posner: How old was he?
Hector: If he's a drummer he would be a young soldier, not even as young as you probably.
Posner: No. Hardy.
Hector: Oh, how old was Hardy? When he wrote this, about 60. My age, I suppose. Saddish life, though not unappreciated. Un-coffined is a typical Hardy usage. A compound adjective, formed by putting un- in front of the noun. Or the verb, of course. Un-kissed. Un-rejoicing. Un-confessed. Un-embraced. It's a turn of phrase he has bequeathed to Larkin who liked Hardy apparently. He does the same. Un-spent. Un-fingermarked. And with both of them it brings a sense of not sharing, of being out of it. Whether because of diffidence or shyness, but a holding back. Not being in the swim. Can you see that?
Posner: Yes, sir. I felt that a bit.
Hector: The best moments in reading are when you come across something—a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things—which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours. Shall we just have the last verse again and I'll let you go.
That's Dakin Matthews as Hector, the Falstaffian professor. For an actor to step into this massive role so soon after Richard Griffiths' titanic interpretation of the role is as thankless as it is daunting. Matthews plays Hector as a clever maître'd guarding the velvet ropes of knowledge, whereas Griffiths' shambling Hector was content to stand in line. Griffiths' pathos was stronger, his fall greater—but that performance is history. Matthews is a great choice for the LA premiere and future Hectors' will benefit from the insights he passes along.
The History Boys runs through this Sunday at the Ahmanson Theatre.
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.
Banner image: Craig Schwartz