Making the Grade: Studio Repeats 'History Boys'
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 1, 2008
With the memory of a superb Broadway version and a slightly less beguiling movie still fresh, Studio Theatre is serving up its own take on "The History Boys," Alan Bennett's spirited portrait of aspiring high-fliers at an undistinguished grammar school in the north of England of the early 1980s.
Joy Zinoman's production proves on the whole to be a worthwhile successor to the many-splendored, Tony-winning original, even if at times the wit of Bennett's script is not turned up to full volume. While the eight young actors in the cast offer entertaining accounts of teenage irreverence and swagger, Zinoman's "History Boys" is a more muted, less reflexively funny evening, one that instead sharpens the focus on the play's social criticism, concerning the ruthless pragmatism of Britain under Margaret Thatcher.
The major shift in the Studio version is in the illumination of the play's pivotal character, Hector, portrayed by Richard Griffiths on Broadway and in the virtually concurrent 2006 film. Here, the role of the maverick English teacher -- worried more about building students' character than their transcripts -- is filled by Floyd King, who boldly goes his own way.
Whereas Griffiths's complex Hector reveled self-destructively in a disregard for the rules, King's portrayal is a more crotchety, less florid creation. His notion is of a more passive Hector, one who senses that the end is near, who understands the implications of the fact that his teaching style might no longer be tolerated, let alone appreciated.
Dulling the character's luster is an interesting choice, especially for King, who is no stranger to more flamboyant turns. The performance certainly succeeds in balancing the scuffle at the heart of "The History Boys" between the inspirational iconoclasm of a teacher such as Hector and the false version of it as preached by his younger rival, Irwin (Simon Kendall), who has been hired to coach these young diamonds-in-the-rough on the essays and interviews they must get through to secure the Oxford and Cambridge places for which they are in the running.
But if you have to accept Hector as a more diffident figure -- the play offers plenty of other evidence of his defects -- the comedy tends to suffer a bit. Hector's in-class breakdown, for instance, after the stiff-necked headmaster (James Slaughter) confronts him with accusations of his having fondled the students, is treated here as an aspect of a tragedy of more shatteringly naked dimension. It becomes harder to perceive in this "History Boys" the enjoyable Hector reflected in his cheeky charges, the one who gives them the lessons that ultimately should have been engraved on their psyches.
"The History Boys" is, in a sense, about the conversion of Hector's students into Irwin's. The occasion is the unusual crop of pupils in this particular year, 1983, at the Cutlers Grammar School in shabby, economically scarred Sheffield. Eight of them have qualified for a shot at Oxbridge, among them, the sensitive Posner (Owen Scott); the supercilious Timms (Nick Stevens); the observant Scripps (Ben Diskant); the doltish Rudge (Robert Rector); and most dazzlingly, the rakish, predatory Dakin (Jay Sullivan).
Mirroring what Bennett views as the rush at the time in Britain to supplant a benevolent (and perhaps overly permissive) social-liberal ethos with a Tory credo of achievement-at-any-cost, the headmaster hires Irwin as a history tutor. His mandate is not to show the boys how to work better in school, but how better to work the system. Cynically, he teaches them the art of making an impression, of standing out in their essays and interviews simply by taking a contrarian point of view, no matter how absurd the position. It's the triumph of posture over substance, or as Irwin puts it: "History is not a matter of conviction. It's a performance."
Hector's classes, by contrast, are all about the intrinsic value of culture and knowledge, no matter how marginal or digressive. In one amusing scene, conducted entirely in French, the boys choose for the practicum a conversation set in a brothel. In others, they act out moments from old movie melodramas, challenging the teacher to guess the source. Hector's peculiar pedagogy is of maximum benefit to those who are the most gifted; in this case, that is the fragile Posner, for whom Hector might feel the deepest affinity (and which helps to explain why the teacher never touches him).
Zinoman's no-nonsense staging eschews the voluminous apparatus of the Broadway production, which transferred from London's Royal National Theatre. That version used realistic-looking sets, as well as black-and-white movies of the boys -- a homage to the techniques of the British new wave of the early '60s -- for scene transitions. As conceived by designer Russell Metheny, the polished wood of Studio's set is left practically unadorned, except for some desks, chairs and a piano. The one movable element is a triple-height door frame on a track that is wheeled into place to create entry to various rooms of the school.
The teachers are made to seem less the stars here than the students. As Hector's opinionated colleague, Lintott, Tana Hicken seems to follow King's lead, playing a potentially bravura character a tad too close to the vest. Kendall's Irwin, on the other hand, feels just right; the actor makes us believe in this man as a pale imitation of all that's deemed admirable in the world of scholarship.
Led by Sullivan's seductively convincing turn as Dakin, the young actors form an agreeably mischievous pack. (The only wrong note is struck in the rendition of the lovely "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered"; by design or otherwise, Scott is off-key.) What the play tells us, finally, about how they all grow up is bittersweet confirmation that a young mind is a terrible thing to compromise.