New York City Theater
"The History Boys"
Broadhurst Theatre, Broadway
“The History Boys,” the latest British import to Broadway, is a wonderfully witty, literate piece, English humor at its best. It is, in fact, what one might expect of the eminent playwright/memoirist Alan Bennett, whose works have included “The Madness of King George III,” “Talking Heads,” and a recently-published collection of autobiographical essays called “Untold Stories.”
The play focuses on a grammar school class (read “high school” in American parlance) of boys preparing for college entrance. The goal of these eight boys is to gain acceptance at Oxford or Cambridge (read Harvard or Yale). Forget such schools as Bristol or York.
(Once again, this piece is undoubtedly autobiographical, as Bennett was himself an Oxford graduate. Bennett would gain fame in 1960 with Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, and Jonathan Miller, a brilliant Oxbridge quartet which created “Beyond the Fringe.”)
In “The History Boys,” the students provide a battlefield for old and new education, for old and new morality, with teachers on either side of the coin. Should the students be taught to revere literature, philosophy, history? Or be tuned into gimmicks which work well on entrance exams? Integrity or expediency?
The battle plays out between an older man, the history teacher, and a new young brash teacher of English. Feeding into the conflict are two more adult characters--the materialistic headmaster and the world-weary woman teacher (the one female character in the play), both sharply etched.
While Bennett lays out the battle plan, he also offers, as is his wont, hilarious dialogue which touches on the sexual yearnings and confusions of the adolescents. And under the flawless direction of Nicholas Hytner, Bennett’s long-time collaborator, the play rushes forward at headlong pace. Hytner cleverly interweaves film, musical numbers and straight dramatic scenes. Characters appear on stage as well as in the back-up film.
This superb ensemble makes it difficult to single out performances, since the ensemble works like a well-oiled machine. Yet several actors must be noted. Richard Griffiths gives a touching performance as Hector, an educator whose time has come and gone. And, among the students, Samuel Barnett is most endearing as the little Jewish boy Posner who struggles to find his place—both in class and in the world. It doesn’t hurt that he can put over a song with the best of them—a talent which Hytner cleverly uses to divert the audience during scene changes. And Dominic Cooper as the sexy student Dakin is a commanding stage presence. Although the accents (of several actors) are not easy on American ears, and dialogue is often lost, the gist of the tale comes through.
All told, “The History Boys” brings new joy to the Broadway stage. Hopefully, Bennett and Hytner will continue to bring shows to our benighted shores.
-- Irene Backalenick
Apr. 22, 2006