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Paulanne Simmons

"The History Boys" Teaches Broadway a Lesson

"The History Boys"
Directed by Nicholas Hytner
Broadhurst Theatre
235 West 44th St.
Opened April 23, 2006
Tues. thru Sat. at 8 p.m. matinees Wed. & Sat. at 2 p.m.
(212) 239-6200 or www.Telecharge.com
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons April 26, 25, 2006

From "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" to "Dead Poets Society," there's no shortage of dramatizations about teachers and their students. But few are as ironic and blasphemous as Alan Bennett's "The History Boys," which opened at the Broadhurst Theatre on April 23 with its original London cast.

Like many of its kind, "The History Boys" present two competing views of education. Hector (the excellent Richard Griffiths), who has been relegated to General Studies, believes young people should be taught above all the joy of learning. He quotes extensively from the poets and allows his students great liberties in his classroom, disciplining them with an affectionate whack on the head.

Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), who is brought into the state-run grammar school to help the boys achieve the ultimate success of being accepted at Oxford or Cambridge, has a more utilitarian view of education. In fact, his enemies say that he is not a true historian, but rather a journalist.

Finally, Mrs. Lintott (the commanding Frances de la Tour) comes in from the distaff side, expressing the opinion that history, as one of the boys puts it, is "one fucking thing after another," with men producing all of the fuck-ups.

"The History Boys" starts slowly. Then Hector allows the boys to take over a French lesson (as long as they do it in the subjunctive and conditional) and turn it into an encounter with a prostitute in a French brothel, thus providing the play with its most hilarious scene.

From then on, under Nicholas Hytner's capable direction, the pace never falters.

Soon it is revealed that Posner (the heart-breaking Samuel Barnett), a small, gay, Jewish boy, is fixated on the popular and sexually predatory Dakin (Dominic Cooper), who is advancing step-by-step in his conquest of Fiona, the headmaster's secretary. Posner only becomes more enamored as Dakin describes his progress in vivid military terms.

When it turns out that Hector is engaging in unsavory extracurricular activities, the headmaster (Clive Merrison) is determined to restore decorum. Hector, an obese clown with a clown's wisdom and large heart, is condemned to lose what he loves most, his boys.

"The History Boys" moves with a fluidity more readily associated with film. In fact, video clips punctuate the action and play a major, though not necessarily useful, role throughout the play.

But what is most striking about "The History Boys" is the characters' speech. Both students and teachers have a way with words and a wealth of knowledge one doesn't often encounter in either the young or the old. Bennett's extensive use of French and poetry, to say nothing of the lessons in history, is remarkable and bold for the contemporary, commercial American stage.

"The History Boys" is British in a way that gives Americans inferiority complexes. The humor is sophisticated. The wit is acerbic. The references are erudite. This is one import that's like a breath of fresh air blowing across Broadway.


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