Thursday, May 8, 2008
One for the history books?
The boys in the band of The History Boys.
Occasionally a play arrives that unconsciously underlines the way theatre is becoming a kind of private gay preserve. Alan Bennett's The History Boys, for instance (currently at the Roberts Studio Theatre, from SpeakEasy Stage) centers on a gay teacher with a certain peccadillo - he gropes his teen-age charges - that it's hard to imagine as a minor "flaw" in a straight leading man, at least if said leading man hoped to hang onto our sympathy. Yet sympathize with Bennett's hero, the crusty "Hector," who teaches in a lowly private boys' school in Sheffield, we are definitely expected to do. Yes, Hector is duly caught and punished before the final curtain, but we're repeatedly asked to smile indulgently at his transgressions - he compares his furtive feels to "benedictions," for instance (imagine that joke being made about a girl's breasts!), and he's finally dismissed not as a predator, but as "a twerp."
Now I don't mean to paint the objects of Hector's attentions as victims - after all, they're in the final year of British "public" (i.e., private) school, which is famous as a homo-erotic hothouse. So not unbelievably, they by and large laugh off Hector's pathetic pawing ("I'm scarred for life!" one snickers). Still, the whole subplot reeks of a certain kind of gay fantasy - playwright Bennett half-hints that the boys' indulgence of their pedagogue's probings is a part of their affection for him, and never faces up to the balance of power in the situation (although later on he does show an intriguing awareness of how it can pivot). To be blunt, the boys submit to Hector largely because he controls their grades, not out of any feeling for him (although said affection is quite probably real), and it's simply silly to pretend otherwise. Trust me, I know - I was once felt up by a professor myself (hard to believe, yes, but once I was young and skinny). It was hardly a trauma, and I liked the guy quite a bit; still, I've no illusions as to why I let him do it.
But of course any such realism would complicate the rest of Bennett's play, in which Hector (Bob Colonna, at left) does battle for the right and good against the creeping, careerist relativism of the modern academy. "Hector" - that's a nickname, of course, because his noble cause is lost, and his victories pyrrhic (literally) - believes in education for its own sake; his study hall is devoted to the useless knowledge that you can't make a widget out of but which we cherish as making us human (including everything from Auden and Hardy to Brief Encounter and "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered"). But the headmaster wants his boys to cut the mustard at "Oxbridge" (as we say nowadays), and so brings in a glib new history teacher, Irwin, who is all about postmodern spin over substance. "History nowadays is not a matter of conviction," he whispers in his students' ears. "It's a performance." So soon the "history boys" are arguing the opposite of what they actually believe (or know to be true) simply because that's what makes a good show - and the play becomes yet another erstwhile battle for young hearts and minds. Of course we know who won this particular war (if you don't, just read Andrew Sullivan or Christopher Hitchens to find out), but the funny thing is, it does make a good show - and Bennett conjures some fresh, witty fireworks from his classroom campaigns.
The unspoken problem with the plot, however, is that it unintentionally demonstrates that slimy Irwin actually does make his students think more, and with greater insight, than Hector does; maybe glib contrarianism isn't as bad as it seems. But The History Boys can't really pursue its arguments to such an equivocally fresh conclusion, because it's distracted by its awkward sex-crime subplot - particularly when the "hot" boy in class, Dakin, having learned a thing or two about school teachers, sets about seducing Irwin. This bizarre twist is hard to parse (particularly in this production); Bennett seems to almost be pursuing some kind of vengeance on his villain, with a cool irony that's simply at odds with everything that has come before - and then, to top off the whole structural car crash, he throws in a motorcycle crash as his dénouement. I've never seen a play so carefully crafted within its scenes utterly jump the rails in its overall arc; but that's what happens to History Boys.
And that's what happens to Scott Edmiston's smart, but superficial (and sentimental) production. Edmiston, as usual, is brilliant with scenes with "heart," but doesn't quite know what to make of the characters' cooler calculations, and tends (again as usual) to punch things up with musical interludes. It doesn't help that some key roles are ever so slightly miscast. Bob Colonna is all roaring, bright-eyed eccentricity as Hector, but he never taps into the anxious, pathetic longing that hides in his persona's shadow - so his fall conjures little pathos. Meanwhile Chris Thorn essays Irwin with an accomplished sense of understatement - but shouldn't this bright, false new star be a bit more charismatic and attractive? How else to explain the way he arouses the interest of Dakin (played here by Dan Whelton with the requisite hots, but with not quite enough smarts, or dawning sense of competitive power)?
Luckily, there's more precisely-gauged work elsewhere in the production. The reliable Paula Plum (at right) makes short, deft work of the school's single, wryly defeated female teacher, while Karl Baker Olson twists with transparent pain as the gay boy who's in love with Dakin, too. The rest of the "boys" nail their sketched-in characters with appropriate energy. The design work is at SpeakEasy's usual high level - although Gail Astrid Buckley does little with the costuming to conjure the 80's, the play's putative setting (it's really set in the 50's, anyhow). Meanwhile Janie E. Howland once again triumphs over the wide, boxy feel of the Roberts with a wittily expert and lovingly detailed set. This superficial sheen isn't really enough to disguise the flaws in the play, but if you squint a bit, it may fool you into thinking it's at the head of its class.