By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 24, 2006
NEW YORK -- May the marvelous "The History Boys" achieve a long and happy life on Broadway. May it be fruitful and multiply. May its tills fill to overflowing, its matinees sell out on beautiful spring days, and its cast spend a night at my house.
You're prone to swoon a bit embarrassingly when a play is as bracingly smart as the one that opened last night at the Broadhurst Theatre. Playwright Alan Bennett has pulled off that rarest of feats, a comedy of ideas both devilishly entertaining and true to the heart.
"The History Boys" may take place an ocean away and a generation ago: It's the mid-1980s in an all-male secondary school in the north of England. And some of the more arcane educational terminology will fall oddly on untrained American ears: "A-levels" (crucial exams) and "league tables" (schools' test-result rankings) are among the Britishisms invoked over the course of the play. But you need not be afflicted by Anglophilia nor well-versed in English pedagogy to find a comfortable seat in this world. Bennett conjures with an affectionate contrariness -- and wit worthy of Wilde -- the pleasures peculiar, paradoxical and even profane, in pushing and pulling bright young men toward their destinies.
With the assistance of director Nicholas Hytner and a peerless cast imported from London, Bennett presents a slice of provincial high school life of 20 years ago as a mirror on fundamental shifts in the English approach to intellectual and material success. The divergent threads are embodied by a pair of teachers: Hector, a free-thinker, a lover of learning for learning's sake, and Irwin, his younger rival, a pragmatist whose most potent tool is coaching students to bamboozle their way into the elite universities by telling entrance examiners exactly what they want to hear.
As the incorrigible Hector, an intellectual purist, careless about satisfying academic requirements and oblivious to boundaries in or out of the class, Richard Griffiths is delivering one of those remarkable performances that render actor and character indivisible. You'll recognize him from the "Harry Potter" movies, in which he plays Harry's miserable Uncle Vernon. (A smaller contingent will recall him with more fondness for his turn as the hilariously lascivious Monty in the 1987 cult-film comedy "Withnail and I.")
Here, as in "Withnail," Griffiths portrays a man of not-so-hidden appetites. It is a measure of the subtlety of "The History Boys" that Hector's predilection for 16-year-old boys -- whom he gropes during the motorcycle rides home that he offers to the better-looking ones -- does not automatically demonize him. The boys themselves treat these clumsy episodes as laughable, and they seem to allow them to continue out of pity for their teacher.
Hector is no Mr. Chips, but he earns the boys' loyalty for his own fealty to an anarchic teaching style that allows his students to sate their curiosities. In one very funny scene, the boys practice conversational French by casting themselves in an impromptu skit about a Parisian whorehouse. The eight young actors portraying Hector's students all are terrific, and three are positively spiffing: James Corden, as Timms, the lumpy class clown; Dominic Cooper, who plays Dakin, the school's incipient Casanova; and Samuel Barnett, in the pivotal role of Posner, who, because he is short, gay, Jewish and from -- inside joke here -- Sheffield, believes himself doomed.
The boys, from middle-class families, are cutups, but also the school's best hopes for admission to those citadels of privilege, Oxford and Cambridge. The play, set during the administration of Margaret Thatcher, suggests that a new emphasis in Britain on American-style personal initiative has filtered down to the government-run schools. In "The History Boys" the headmaster (Clive Merrison, in a portrayal a bit too redolent of sitcom-foppishness) is determined that the boys get accepted, and so hires the upstart Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) to teach them to work the system as calculatedly as they can.
Bennett neither wholeheartedly endorses Hector's approach, nor condemns Irwin's. Both exhibit prominent blind spots when it comes to their own foibles. A third teacher, played by the superb Frances de la Tour, as a long-suffering academic fully and humanely schooled in life's inequities, is a believer in hard-and-fast rules, of preparing students with cold historical facts. Subjected to this substantive variety, the pupils retain a special affection, unsurprisingly, for Hector. It is he who nurtures their singularity. In Posner, for example, it's expressed as musicality: He's given the evening's most affecting moment, a glowing rendition of "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" from Rodgers and Hart's "Pal Joey."
The vigorous pace of adolescence, meanwhile, is reflected in videos flashed during scene changes on a screen that fills the wall behind Bob Crowley's set of institutional gray walls and rows of fluorescent fixtures. The black and white videos, put together by Ben Taylor, evoke the youthful energy and gritty realism of 1960s movies by Tony Richardson.
That sort of energy courses through Bennett's play. At several points in the story, the boys conduct a game in which they reenact melodramatic scenes from famous tear-jerkers of the past, and the teachers must name the movie. The joy for the students is all in the taking on of exotic roles. And on this playful level, at least, the fallible teachers of "The History Boys" never get it wrong.
The History Boys, by Alan Bennett. Directed by Nicholas Hytner. Sets and costumes, Bob Crowley; lighting, Mark Henderson; music, Richard Sisson; video, Ben Taylor; sound, Colin Pink. With Clive Merrison, Andrew Knott, Russell Tovey, Jamie Parker. About 2½ hours. At Broadhurst Theatre, 235 W. 44th St., New York. Call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.telecharge.com .