- The History Boys
- By Alan Bennett
- Directed by Joy Zinoman
- Produced by The Studio Theatre
- Reviewed by Tim Treanor
There is a moment, about an hour into Studio’s overlong History Boys, in which Floyd King reminds us of why we go to theater. King, one of the few actors here (or anywhere) whose mere presence in the cast justifies the price of a ticket, plays a donnish instructor at an English boy’s school. To this point, King’s performance has been cautious and conventional, reedy and tweedy. We’ve seen this character before, in Goodbye Mr. Chips, perhaps, or one of its innumerable imitators.
But at this moment, the rapacious Headmaster (the excellent James Slaughter) delivers some very bad news indeed to King’s character. King seems to do nothing. There seems to be no break in the tenure-insulated insolence he is showing his nominal supervisor. And yet it is like watching a glacier calve off and fall into the ocean. The sweat shines on his face. His knees begin to tremble, slightly. He draws himself up, and closes his eyes briefly. His next words – stupid and irrelevant though they are, properly – break your heart.
I wish I could say that The History Boys was full of such moments. The intimate Metheny stage is built for great acting, and this cast is more than competent. But what is really most prominent on stage is a great playwright’s fatal flaw: his willingness to sacrifice story line in order to gin up some witty dialogue. Yes, The History Boys is witty, as a Dorothy Parker essay is witty, but it is not a great play.
Consider: the Headmaster of a mediocre boy’s school seeks to improve its cachet, and his own, by landing a few of its graduates in one of England’s great schools: Oxford or Cambridge. Identifying a gaggle of boys who have done well on their history exams, he engages Irwin, (Simon Kendall), an Oxford graduate who specializes in teaching young men to spin themselves, and their accomplishments, so that they get admitted to important institutions. The scheme is abhorrent to Hector (King), an old-school teacher who sees exams, and education as a whole, as an enemy of learning.
Irwin’s plan of attack is to get his students to advocate unusual and controversial ideas in their essay papers, in order to distinguish themselves to the examiners. “To understand Stalin, study Henry VIII,” he intones, repeatedly and nonsensically. “To understand Mrs. Thatcher, study Henry VIII,” and he suggests that students defend Stalin in their essays. This horrifies Hector, who wants his students to say what they believe.
Bennett thus loads the play with the potential for high-stakes, and important, conflict, and indeed the best part of the production is a disastrous team-teaching effort involving Irwin and Hector at the top of the second Act. The subject eventually turns to the Holocaust, which Irwin urges his students to consider simply as a political event. A Jewish student, Posner (Owen Scott), passionately opposes this viewpoint, and every time he makes an effective argument Irwin squeals “Good!” “It’s not ‘good’,” Hector bellows “He’s saying what he believes.” The point is lost on Irwin.
The irony, of course, is that the glib and superficial Irwin, by insisting that his students think outside their own comfort zones, is providing a much greater service to them than does Hector. Irwin’s motivations may be dishonorable, but he is teaching them to think. Hector, by encouraging them to trust their own instincts and feelings, allows whatever nostrums they learned at their parent’s knees to remain unchallenged. Irwin’s classes are full of vigorous back-and-forth among the students; Hector’s seemed to mostly involve the memorization of poetry and the looking up of words, punctuated with music-hall skits and name-that-movie contests.
Had Bennett focused on this story, he might have had an exciting and moving piece. But he adds a side story about a crush Posner has on another student, the preternaturally glib and self-confident Dakin (Jay Sullivan). There are several visits to Hector’s classroom to watch a musical skit or a comic movie reenactment (one conducted entirely in French). We also have a practice interview conducted by the faculty which simply reinforces observations about the teachers’ points of view which had been made many times previously. Typical of the play, Bennett has a formidable female history teacher (Tana Hicken) give a scathing speech about history as an account of the screw-ups of men – without any visible motivation, and without any measurable response from the men to whom she gives it.
Matters are not helped by the production’s decision to punctuate the many scene changes with short bursts of 80’s techno-rock.
I make these observations hesitantly, recognizing that The History Boys won the Tony Award for best play and the Laurence Oliver award for best new play, and that many of the people in the theater with me guffawed uninhibitedly throughout the show. But not everyone: my guest left shortly after the beginning of the second Act, and it seemed that there were a dozen other folks of a similar mind. In any event, this is how I saw the show.
I cannot leave the subject, however, without acknowledging the high quality of the performances – in particular King; Kendall, whose body language recalled another Irwin (Helen Hayes nominee Bill); Slaughter, who moved from fool to menace with sickening speed and agility; Scott, who gave a sort of loopy credibility to his character; and Sullivan, who was never anything but fully authentic every moment he was on the stage.
Running Time: 2:45, including one 10-minute intermission.
When: Tuesdays through Sundays until May 4. Sunday shows are at 7. All other evening shows are at 8. There are Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2.
Where: Metheny Theatre within Studio Theatre, 1501 14th Street NW.
Tickets: $39-$57. For tickets, call 202.332.3300 or go to http://www.studiotheatre.org/. Go to the website for further information.