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By the time Alan Bennett’s boisterous group of upwardly mobile British schoolboys made its way to the Broadway stage in 2006 to sop up awards, acclaim, and box office receipts, the 16-member cast of The History Boys had already been working together more or less continually for nearly two years. They’d also spent the months leading up to the show’s New York opening together, shooting the film version. The much-praised chemistry that existed between those actors during that American run can only develop over years of performance, not weeks of rehearsal, so it would be flatly, even egregiously unfair to compare Studio’s production to that one.
But let’s do it anyway, if only to note with surprise and no small amount of delight how damn good the Studio cast is already. Every groove hasn’t quite been worn smooth, and there’s some settling still to occur, but the actors have found the easy, offhand rapport this play demands. As a result, Joy Zinoman’s staging is smart, funny, and touching; in several scenes, it’s all three at once.
The show itself hasn’t been reimagined, exactly, but it has been radically redesigned to fit Studio’s performance space. To literally fit it: Russell Metheny’s stylish set (abstract where the Broadway/London production was so realistic you could smell the gum under the school desks) seems to grow organically out of the preexisting wood-and-steel architectural elements of the theater that surrounds it. You’d think such an ultra-contemporary design would make it difficult for audiences to locate the play in its 1980s setting, but when every scene change is coupled with the blaring synth-pop of the skinny necktie era, it’s not an issue. There are a hell of a lot of such transitions, so fair warning to those too old or too young or too heterosexual to appreciate the song stylings of Dead or Alive and its unfortunately coifed ilk: Your patience will be tested.
Bennett’s breezily written but ferociously intelligent and allusive play (unless you know your Auden from your Larkin, you may wish to take along a Comp Lit major) places us in a classroom of lads preparing to take the essay tests that could get them into Oxford or Cambridge. As the day of the test nears, the boys must navigate the competing influences of two radically different instructors. On the one hand there is Hector (Floyd King), a teacher of English who prefers to inculcate the boys on Bette Davis films, Rodgers and Hart tunes, and other bits of cultural ephemera that are decidedly not in the curriculum in the hopes they will embrace knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Hector unsurprisingly views exams as the “enemy of education.”
The school’s headmaster (James Slaughter) thinks decidedly otherwise and invites the young Mr. Irwin (Simon Kendall) to teach Hector’s class how to game the system. Irwin wants to show the boys that writing interestingly will get them further than simply writing well and so challenges them to flout conventional wisdom, advance unpopular arguments, and employ little-known historical facts to make their exams stand out from the rest.
The History Boys has been painted as a straightforward if not exactly evenhanded clash between those two educational strategies. But reducing the play to a struggle between Socratism and sophistry means ignoring the fact that Bennett is careful to provide a third view, in the person of Mrs. Lintott (the dryly funny Tana Hicken). Lintott is a by-the-book sort whose classes originally supplied the boys with the trove of historical info that Hector now gleefully embellishes and Irwin now glibly subverts. Bennett, of course, knows that we’re naturally curious to hear what she has to say about these two fellows and their idiosyncratic approaches, so he keeps her in his back pocket for most of the play. When he does bring her out, it’s to unleash a couple of doozy speeches about men and history that are meant to serve as bracing slaps, administered with sufficient strength to cause the onstage clouds of testosterone and self-satisfaction to part, just for a moment. But Hicken zips through these potentially withering appraisals, delivering them with something closer to waspishness; they’re funny enough, but they don’t land with nearly the blistering force they should.
King seems oddly subdued here, too, but it serves the character. Hector grows expansive when teaching, but in quieter moments—and the character spends much of his time simply watching his students with amusement as they perform skits and songs for him—King is content to let us see Hector as his students see him: A lonely soul whose furtive, fumbling, quasi-sexual overtures cause him to be regarded, however fondly, as a ridiculous figure.
The boys see right through Irwin as well. (The boys, we learn, see everything clearly.) Kendall deftly undercuts his character’s arrogance with just enough insecurity to earn and keep our sympathies, even when we glimpse him, years later, in his role as the smarmy host of TV documentaries. (Keep an eye and ear out during those segments to appreciate how Michael Lincoln uses lighting and Gil Thompson tweaks the sound design to evoke the washed-out look and feel of television.)
Finally, there are the boys themselves. Jay Sullivan is so charismatic and self-confidently flirtatious as Dakin it’s not hard to figure out why a handful of the play’s characters—students and teachers—have his name scrawled across their Trapper Keepers. Owen Scott lends Posner, the effete young lad burning with unrequited love, an awkwardly plaintive quality that’ll have you wincing in sympathy. The other young actors fill out the ensemble with the peculiar brand of brazen, loutish charm that is unique to teenage boys.