According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

The History Boys
by Aaron Riccio

The show becomes much like a class: a broad study in a wide variety of theatrical forms, well-presented by talented teachers, and a potpourri of quotes and snippets, none of which move the heart ever so much as the teacher would like to believe.

As a comedy, The History Boys is simply brill.
It’s an ace work that demonstrates the profound ridiculousness of high school, especially the extra preparatory classes for college. Although it’s a British import, things are pretty much the same there as here, save for a few lexical issues, and it’s good that they’ve implanted the whole cast, since they’re bazzin’. The problem is, The History Boys is not presented as a comedy—at least, not entirely. There’s a niggling undertone of dramatics, involving a beloved but eccentric teacher, who has the slight habit of molesting his children, often while riding them home on his motorcycle.

Though it’s easy to believe that Hector (Richard Griffith) has a passion for pure teaching—he dislikes the idea of his students using the information he’s teaching them to pass their upcoming college exams—it’s hard to see him in that other light, and harder still to see everyone so breezily accepting that. “I wonder if we’ll be scarred for life,” remarks one student (who actually turns out—though it’s presented comically—to be scarred for life). Says the other, glibly, “I certainly hope so. Maybe I’ll turn out like Proust.” These attempts to make a dark subject funny go awry because while at first they draw the shocked laughs of the Durang class, the abrupt return to reality makes one wonder what’s actually so funny about it.

Another problem with Alan Bennett’s play, at least for the under-40 crowd, is his source material. Hector’s class draws from all forms of knowledge, and the showtunes the class sings, the movies they recreate scenes from, or, in particular, a French skit the class performs (hard to follow if you don’t know a romance language), make certain scenes inaccessible. It also makes the show seem snarky. This attitude isn't helped by the way Bennett opens each of the two acts with scenes set in the future, nor the all-too-clever manner in which the actors address the audience. One teacher, Mrs. Lintott, even goes so far as to say that up until now, she has not had the opportunity to address the audience. Witty, yes. Relevant, no. It's an excuse to add meta-drama to the list of genres The History Boys takes on, and it’s just out of place.

It's not fair, though, to say that something in The History Boys is out of place, for after all, Bennett has made his play so broad that it can conceivably cover anything (and so broad that it's flat and repetitive). The classroom scenes all come to resemble one another, with educated humor, and the only accurate thing that’s really said about history, which also applies to the show itself, is that it’s all “just one fucking thing after another.” So there’s a brief comment about when it becomes okay to discuss the Holocaust. And there’s another side-plot, the sum total of one monologue long, that observes how an athletic student doesn’t really need intelligence. And look, look! Over there! It’s a love story that would be tragic (between the effeminate Posner and the anything-goes Dakin) if, you know, anything were ever made of it. And, ultimately, nothing ever is made of it in The History Boys. The show becomes much like Hector’s class: a broad study in a wide variety of theatrical forms, well-presented by talented teachers, and a potpourri of quotes and snippets, none of which move the heart ever so much as Hector would like to believe.

The History Boys is an outstanding performance piece, with everything from philosophy to cabaret, and it smoothly jibes together to show a lot of disparate views (though, to be fair, it takes almost three hours to do so). But after class is dismissed, a lot of what’s been said turns out to be a lot of bunk, and to be fair, perhaps you’re better off playing hooky, where you might at least learn something useful.

~[Aaron Riccio]~

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