Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The History Boys (The SOB Review) - Broadhurst Theatre, New York, NY

The History Boys (The SOB Review) - Broadhurst Theatre, New York, NY

***1/2 (out of ****)

Current news stories often inform my perspective when going to the theatre. They can have a chilling impact on my assessment if a terrible event has just occurred. Unfortunately, that was the case in finally seeing The History Boys this past Saturday.

You see, the day before, Congressman Mark Foley (R-FL) resigned in disgrace after it had been revealed that he had been instant-messaging a 16 year old Congressional page with sexually suggestive, predatory comments. The ensuing outrage was both immediate and widespread.

Little did I realize upon entering the Broadhurst that this year's Tony Award-winning Best Play would touch on the delicate topic of Hector, an aging predatory teacher (excellently played by Richard Griffiths) who regularly provided motorcycle rides to many of his students, copping a feel with each along the way. The news events of the prior day weighed so heavily in my consciousness that I was continually holding my breath as each revelation in the compelling play was made.

Perhaps most shocking given the Foley news flash was playwright Alan Bennett rather cavalierly depicting the students' amazingly blithe acceptance of their teacher's groping, and the seeming desire by Hector's one outwardly gay student Posner -- played with sensitive perfection by Samuel Barnett -- to be included on the rides that inexplicably remained elusive to him. Surely the mores of the time (mid-1980s in northern England) would have deemed such behavior as much more reprehensible than it was portrayed, despite the isolated outrage offered up by Clive Merrison's quirky Headmaster.

Yet, in spite of all that, I found myself mesmerized by the entire performance. While the intended subplot often overtook the primary plotline, the overriding story about Hector preparing his exceptionally gifted and intelligent students for their pursuit of Cambridge and Oxford admissions was highly fascinating and utterly funny. Despite his unseen behavior outside the classroom, the ever assiduous Hector also sought to sculpt his students' young minds, arming them with valuable knowledge that they'd carry throughout their lives -- rather than simply memorizing facts for a major exam.

The students freely banter among themselves about everything from sports to girls to the aforementioned rides on the back of Hector's motorcycle, which don't seem to matter much to them. We also learn that while there is some affection for their teacher, the students clearly see him as a bit of an old fool, essentially forgiving him for his groping. Standout performances among the students were offered by Barnett, Jamie Parker as Posner's confidante Scripps and Dominic Cooper as the object of Posner's affections.

Frances de la Tour is riveting as Hector's teaching colleague Mrs. Lintott -- or "Hot Tott" as she confesses that her students call her. She more than any other character holds the moral high ground in this play, not only in expressing both indignation and compassion for her scandal-ridden friend and colleague, but also in underscoring the backseat to which women have traditionally been relegated throughout history. But she's also a wealth of understanding as she offers deep concern for the overriding welfare of the impressionable students.

Nicholas Hytner's direction is both fast-paced and jarring, moving swiftly from scene to scene, interspersed with Ben Taylor's fascinating video sequences that continue telling the story outside the classroom as Bob Crowley's effective, efficient set design is quickly changed.

Ultimately, this is an ensemble piece with some extraordinarily talented actors, young and old. And fortunately for posterity's sake, the entire cast has been captured on film for the big screen version of "The History Boys" coming to a movie theater near you this November 24. Barring that, the West End will host the triumphant transfer back to London for this great play, albeit with new actors, starting December 21 at Wyndham's Theatre.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Click here for information on the upcoming film, "The History Boys."
Related Stories:
History Boys Now Broadway History (October 2, 2006)
Going: Three for Three (September 5, 2006)
The History Boys Extends, Along with Special Summer Ticket Offer (June 16, 2006)
BOYS' BIG NIGHT OUT: And The Tony Goes To... Complete List of Winners (June 12, 2006)
And The Tony Goes To... Top Categories (June 11, 2006)
The SOB Picks for 2006 Tony Awards (June 10, 2006)
Tony Award Nominations Announced (May 16, 2006)
Encore: Spotlight Week Ending April 30 (April 30, 2006)

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