New York City Theater
"Dead Poets Society"
Classic Stage Company
The question is not "why," as in "Why put on a stage version of a film?" That worked well with a re-imagined "Brief Encounter" and Hitchcock's "39 Steps," not well with "Gone With the Wind" and Hitchcock's "Rear Window." Now we have "Dead Poets Society" and the results are so mixed you wonder if it were worth doing at all.
The original is, of course, the hit film with a superb Robin Williams as John Keating, an idealistic, unconventional English teacher at a fancy prep school. Determined to stimulate students into appreciating poetry's relevance to their very beings, Keating upsets the pedagogic apple cart and gets himself fired.
Although the battle is lost, the war is won. Somewhat. The boys in his class either break out of their shells or are broken by the system. Whatever their fates, they have been transformed by their encounter with Keating, as so many have been in real as well as fictional life. (See the equally sentimental and heartwarming "Goodbye Mr. Chips," "Good Morning, Miss Dove" and "The Corn is Green" or the antidotal SNL takeoff, "Farewell, Mr. Bunting."
The "Dead Poets" stage play, written, as was the film, by Tom Schulman, follows the movie's general outlines. Instead of the range of locations available to a film, director John Doyle works on a unit set where piles of books substitute for chairs and tables. Scott Pask's scenic design is not only practical but metaphoric, an academic library of great literature surrounds and gives meaning to a pragmatic world.
In this world "Carpe diem," sucking "the marrow of life," being defiant, being true to oneself and other bromides have it all over the idea that learning means regurgitating facts and using academic achievement as mere college preparation. In Keating's world, Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau are gods to be worshipped, not the school's principles of "tradition, honor, discipline, excellence."
Perhaps because the focus is so cramped, the outside world so remote, the play itself seems perfumed with musk. Surely it’s not the performances, yet the characterizations seem shallow, superficial. SNL's Jason Sudekis is charming as the tweedy Keating who wants to be addressed as "Oh Captain, My Captain." As the students, Zane Pais, Thomas Mann, Cody Kostro, Bubba Weiler, William Hochman and Yaron Lotan are fine, as are David Garrison and Stephen Barker Turner as villainous (of course) adults. Francesca Carpanini has an effective bit as a would-be date.
But director Doyle's bare-bones interpretation, while affecting for anyone influenced by a caring teacher, is stripped of its mystery. What's left are slim pickings.
--David A. Rosenberg
Nov. 22, 2016