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`History' follows an irresistible course

Alan Bennett's agile play pondering the role of education begins a term on Broadway.

April 24, 2006|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Every once in a while, a play comes along that helps you understand why you keep coming back to Broadway despite its rampant commercialism and overpriced mediocrity. That satisfying feeling, a clear sign that you're in the presence of true originality, is hard to explain, but you know it from the tingling rush of enjoyment that envelops you during the performance and the savored memories that linger long afterward.

"The History Boys," the Alan Bennett play that opened Sunday at the Broadhurst Theatre in a magnificent remount of the National Theatre of Great Britain production featuring the same glorious cast, offers the kind of unabashedly eccentric thrills that can be had only in the theater. Which is to say in the company of others equally appreciative of characters whose heightened peculiarities end up revealing us most truthfully to ourselves. Though it's already been adapted into a film (scheduled to be released after the Broadway run), anyone heading to New York should experience the work in all its vertiginous splendor onstage.

Informally mixing comedy, tragedy and even a bit of musical variety, "The History Boys" follows none of the traditional rules of drama, except the one that says never bore. Set in a secondary school in the north of England in the mid-'80s, the play revolves around a class of eight young men who, having excelled on their A-Levels (the English equivalent of our college boards), are preparing to take the entrance exams to study history at Oxford and Cambridge.

This isn't your typical fancy private school that serves as an Oxbridge feeder, but rather a scrappy institution that regularly places its best boys in such respectable universities as Bristol and York. The farcically determined headmaster (Clive Merrison), however, senses that this new crop might have a shot at the big time, and he's keen to capitalize on the possibility. "We are low in the league," he tells Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), the new teacher he has enlisted to help realize his plan. "I want to see us up there with Manchester Grammar School, Haberdashers' Aske's, Leighton Park. Or is that an open prison? No matter."

The students are already under the tutelage of Hector, an unconventional champion of learning for learning's sake, who is played by the Falstaffian-proportioned Richard Griffiths (the British character actor best known as Uncle Vernon in the "Harry Potter" films). Griffiths captures, with nonjudgmental vividness, the moral ambiguities of a character who possesses the forceful charisma of another problematic teacher from literature, Muriel Spark's unforgettable Jean Brodie. The performance, a wondrous match of actor and role, has already earned a place in a mental scrapbook of mine that includes breathtaking Broadway turns from the past decade by Nathan Lane, Linda Lavin, Janet McTeer, Lindsay Duncan, Jefferson Mays and Cherry Jones.

Hector's pedagogy is idealistic and, in a system obsessed with quantifiable results, increasingly outdated. As he describes his philosophy to his friend and esteemed colleague Mrs. Lintott (played with expert drollery by Frances de la Tour), "You give them an education. I give them the wherewithal to resist it."

Discord, revved up by the headmaster, arises between Irwin, whose sole priority is teaching the students how to present their knowledge of history in a flashy, polemical style that will score points with bored admissions officers, and Hector, who has them learn poems by heart, act out scenes from campy Hollywood movies, sing American standards and improvise risque French dialogues for the sheer joy of imaginative play.

Bennett, whose literary output demonstrates the depth and delightfulness of a sensibility given to miscellany, ponders the role of education in our lives. Is it designed simply to allow us to jump through higher and higher hoops, or is it a source of secret consolation in a journey that, even for the most gifted and blessed, is anything but a series of triumphant leaps?

What may sound like a reductive conflict is treated with a complexity that forces us to relinquish any sense of certainty about our positions. Yes, Irwin (cannily portrayed by Moore with a wounded hesitancy) espouses the noxious contemporary view of history as "not a matter of conviction" but an "entertainment" or "performance" -- a perspective that serves him well in his subsequent career as a host on BBC history shows and later as a politician. But he also understands the value of structured goals and rigorous competition and, more to the point, doesn't cop feels while giving the boys a lift on his motorcycle, as Hector is eventually caught doing.

Like the best plays, "The History Boys" is more exploratory than expounding, and Nicholas Hytner's production illuminates the cogency of the contending arguments as well as their cracks.

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