The History Boys makes it four in a row for wunderkind Alan Patrick Kenny of New Stage Collective. Four less similar items are difficult to imagine.
To recite: Last spring there was the mordant, terrifying production Bug. Soon followed the razzle-dazzle staging of Jerry Springer: The Opera. Lately there was an exhilarating production of Conor MacPherson’s intense Shining City, directed by Ed Cohen. Now comes the roistering local premiere of the Alan Bennett play that took six 2006 Tony Awards, including Best Play.
As a sly, bemused, semi-Messianic prep school teacher, Hector (Buz Davis) leads his eight diverse lads to understand that pop culture and high culture are identical in their uses and their civilizing effect.
“History,” he says, “is one fooking thing after another.” Indeed! Likewise History Boys is one fooking comedic insight after another.
Hector and Irwin (Rob Jansen) get into this good teacher-bad teacher riff — only their roles subtly merge. Hector teaches his boys toward a life enriched with glorious words, be they W. H. Auden or Gracie Fields.
Because their school has never placed a graduate at Oxford, the headmaster (Nick Rose) hires Irwin. He coaches them to score well on their university entrance exams. Which matters? Teaching toward life or teaching toward a test? Does either process succeed? That would be telling.
This is an intellectual vaudeville that uses some songs, lots of supporting music, even a casual dance or two to augment its witty examination of serious ideas. So History Boys is right up director Kenny’s alley. And what a scampering pleasure he makes of it, raucous scene after raucous scene, right up to a powerful closing moment when the boys turn “Bye, Bye Blackbird” into a singularly appropriate dirge.
Hector is a star turn, and Davis does virtually flawless work explicating him. Familiar Jansen and Rose are expectedly strong. Blair Bowman, Simon Powell and Cary Davenport dominate roles as three very different History Boys.
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