Boys Do Cry

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timeline-history-boys-stars.jpgtimeline-history-boys-1.jpgI remembered my great excitement as I entered the Broadhurst Theatre to see the New York production of The History Boys (a direct transfer from the UK National Theatre) back in June 2006. It had just won six Tony Awards, including Best Play, a rare feat for a straight play, only previously achieved by the original production of Death of a Salesman in 1949.  It was supposed to be a revelatory, unforgettable play, but I was surprisingly underwhelmed.  I thought the performances were exceptional (boy, pre-Mamma Mia Dominic Cooper, as Dakin, the object of everyone’s affections, was already radiating blinding star quality all the way out to the New Jersey turnpike), and the writing was smart, erudite, sparkling in some places, Stoppard-lite in others.  The reason could have been Nicholas Hytner’s somewhat frigid staging, or maybe it was the Broadhurst’s massive stage and tall ceilings which drowned out the intimacy of the play, or it could have been that I had to turn my head several times to give the Medusa eye and the bared fangs look to the rude, stage-whispering lady sitting behind me who kept on asking her companion to repeat the actors’ dialogue (when she asked him “Is he British” during Richard Griffith’s first scene, I very nearly hissed “Do you want to get out of this theater alive?!”).  I really didn’t even take the time to see the movie version which starred the original stage cast. So I was wonderfully surprised by TimeLine Theatre‘s intelligently directed, beautifully designed, exquisitely acted Chicago premiere – I just have to say that it is probably the best Chicago production I have seen so far this year.  And I am eating my words sans ketchup – I’m shocked that I even thought that Alan Bennett’s writing was Stoppard-lite; it’s in a dizzying class of its own.

I’m firmly convinced that this story of eight adolescent boys preparing for their A-level exams to gain admission into Oxford and Cambridge universities in the 1980s, and the teachers who alternately inspire, challenge, insult, and yes, seduce, them, requires the up-close-and-personal type of staging that TimeLine gives it.  When you enter the theater, you are immediately dropped into the boys’ lives – what used to be the theater’s lobby has been brilliantly, meticulously transformed by Chicago superstar designer Brian Sydney Bembridge into dorm rooms (complete with The Cure posters and ’80s knicknacks).  The audience is arranged in runaway seating on two sides, with the classroom scenes played out in the middle of the space (if you’re in the front row, you may be sitting beside a cast member in some of the scenes), the teachers’ scenes played out in a balcony, and some of quasi-narrator Scripps’ monologues delivered from his upper-level dorm room.  This enveloping set design and director Nick Bowling’s warm-hearted direction and leisurely, but clear-eyed and firm-handed, pacing enables the audience to really get invested in the boys’ emotional transitions into manhood, because they just feel so visceral.  The staging also allows for a clearer demonstration of the underlying conflict in the play between pragmatism and idealism – in New York, what came off, to me, as a mere collection of smart, almost show-offy, quips in some scenes, for example, has now become, in Bowling’s hands, truly heartbreaking episodes (i.e. the verbal tennis match between the boys and their teacher, Irwin, on how ethical it is to discuss the Holocaust in the exam essay).  The boatloads of memorable, intellectual, extremely literate and literary, highly quotable quotes are still here in stark relief (Bennett writes doozies – my favorite line in the play about history being the unfortunate fate of women following stupid men around with a bucket to clean up their mess has the same blistering impact in this production when delivered by the fantastic Ann Wakefield, as the sole female teacher, as it did in New York coming from Tony winner Frances de la Tour), but they’ve taken a backseat to the wistfulness and depth of the writing.  I also really like Mike Tutaj’s video design, and agree with Chris Jones that the videos here are much more well thought-out and sophisticated than the New York production’s (when Henry VIII is referenced, for example, a bitingly funny montage of portrayals of Henry VIII on film, from Charles Laughton to Anne of a Thousand Days, is shown).

But of course, The History Boys, in my opinion, despite Bennett’s dazzling writing, will only succeed with the right cast.  Bowling has assembled a fantastic one – Wakefield is a scene-stealer, somewhat old-fashioned, mostly world-weary and skeptical, but underneath it all, caring and generous; Terry Hamilton as the headmaster is appropriately blow-hardy, slimy, and hilarious; and Andrew Carter, as Irwin, the closeted young professor hired to make sure that the boys pass their A-levels is intriguing in his conflicts and dissonance.  Anyone who plays Hector, the inspiring teacher who is also an unabashed pedophile, will likely be compared by those who’ve seen it to Richard Griffith’s definitive, Olivier- and Tony-winning original performance.  Unlike Griffiths though, whose natural amiability tempered Hector’s threat level by giving him somewhat of an absent-minded, lonely uncle demeanor, Donald Brearley in the Chicago version comes off a bit more predatory and lecherous, a little less elegant.  It’s still a terrific performance, but with an edge.  Also, Griffiths was a ham (and I mean that in the most admiring manner), and sucked the air out of the theater with his gargantuan presence and calibrated zingers, but Brearley, at times, seems to step back and let the younger actors shine.  And it is quite a sterling, incandescent group of young actors who do shine, most of whom I have never watched before (the only person I recognize is Mary-Arrchie ensemble member Brad Bukauskas, who plays smart-alecky Timms with a lot of zest), and who as a group, and individually, represent the exciting promise for the future of Chicago theater.  The entire crew is excellent, but the three central roles are all played by undeniable stars- Will Allan, for one, plays the God-fearing, piano-playing, life-observing Scripps, the emotional center of the piece, with a delicate balance of fresh-faced ingenue and not-easily-taken-in realist.  Joel Gross successfully and memorably steps into Dominic Cooper’s still-blazing shoes as Dakin, infusing the character with a lot of intelligent confidence and sexy smolder, with an underlying sense of street-wise connivance.  Despite the icky feeling that the scene brings up in the audience (this is a boy! not a man!) when Gross’ Dakin tries to seduce Carter’s Irwin, first subtly, then lewdly, it seems like the entire ComEd power grid in Lakeview overheated.  But the star among stars is Northwestern theater junior Alex Weisman who plays the gay Posner, the only one among the boys who ultimately takes Hector’s idealistic, poetic, optimistic life teachings to heart.  It is a magnificent performance, always riveting, always truthful (whether he’s confronting Irwin about their shared feelings for Dakin, or recounting how his uncle hit him for debating his classmates about the Holocaust).  Weisman is luminous, layered (nice mix of self-protectiveness and defenselessness when it comes to Dakin), heartbreaking.  And he can sing too!

If I haven’t made it clear enough, I think The History Boys is THE must-see production of the current Chicago theater season.  TimeLine has extended the show to August 2, so please get your tickets NOW (there are a lot of sold-out performances already), and experience the truly amazing theater that I hoped to find in New York three years ago but found in Chicago instead.  And if my endorsement doesn’t convince you, then maybe the Wall Street Journal’s Terry Teachout’s will:  he calls it “as good as any of the first-class revivals now gracing Broadway.”  For you Chicago theater snobs (such as those trolls on Chris Jones’ blog who, even without yet seeing the show, has criticized the fact that TimeLine got the rights to the Chicago premiere instead of the bigger Equity houses in the city), save your plane fare to LGA and head on over to 615 W. Wellington Ave., instead. You won’t be disappointed.

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