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A CurtainUp Review
The History Boys
A very brief intro to the story: Hector, a beloved teacher at a boys' public school in northern England, has a holistic approach to teaching that favors flights of fancy, sentimentality, an offbeat rigor, and outmoded memorization. The school's "ends-justify-the-means" headmaster brings in Irwin, a young teacher with a pragmatic and truth-is-irrelevant orientation to education that conflicts with Hector's. Irwin is to shape the boys up for Oxford and Cambridge entry exams. (In an amusing touch, throughout the play the two universities are mixed up.) It's past vs future, a bout between a kind of British Harold Bloom and a no holds barrred Kaplan's Test Prep.
[For the full story see links to CU's previous reviews below] If you've seen one of these, you can't help but notice immediately the differences between this show and the London/NYC shows of 2004-2007. For one thing the spare thrust stage has no clutter and no posted bills. The set is more symbolic than messily realistic, and the production is so uncluttered that Hector doesn't even swat the boys with a sheaf of papers or a magazine. He employs a tidy little book.
The lead actor is very different from the legendary Richard Griffiths, but it turns out that an agile, sensitive black actor works extremely well in the role. The elegant Frank X, rather rumpled here, is incomparable as usual. Matthew Amendt seems too likeable as Irwin, but his interpretation renders the young interloper's appeal to the boys all the more understandable. All eight actors in the boy roles are remarkably talented and wonderfully cast.
Evan Jonigkeit, a rising Philly star, is noteworthy as Dakin. Michael Doherty, an extraordinary discovery, is still a college student. A perfect Posner, he sings like an infatuated choir boy. Maureen Torsney-Weir is a convincing Mrs Lintott, who takes a third, " Just the facts, ma'am" educational position. When she gets her chance to vent, she wryly notes to the audience that it is the first opportunity afforded her to do so by the playwright. David Howey, who plays the Headmaster is totally believable. Actually he is a kind of headmaster himself as the head of UArts acting program. The Headmaster's stated concern about assessment surely resonates with teachers in the audience, who have all had "Assessment" out the wazoo.
Hector's out of fashion teaching is not the worst of his proclivities. There is his sexually transgressive behavior toward his students. He is a lovable old coot, the boys are complicit, and the episodes in question are not actually seen. Much less is made of it — or the blackmail-bargain fix— than of the clash of educational goals and philosophies. But The History Boys is complex, layered with accidental occurrences, and it might pack a dose of John Irving-like fated retribution.
The Arden's solidly directed new production moves like a charm. The many transitions, like furniture mover's ballet, seem to happen in the blink of an eye. My only criticism is that the actors sometimes can be hard to hear, depending on where they are standing on the stage. Surely that is fixable. Bennett's popular and much acclaimed play is worth a special trip to 2nd Street.
The History Boys-- in London & NY