‘History’ lesson

Bennett's very English play gains int'l exposure via tour, pic

LONDON — Look for Alan Bennett’s “The History Boys” to achieve a nearly global profile in the season ahead.

The beloved English scribe’s latest play is planning an international tour as well as a Broadway run while readying a film version to be released in 2006 once the Broadway stand has ended. (The six-week shoot began July 18.)

That’s a lot of exposure for a play originally booked into the National Theater repertory in spring 2004 for a mere 45 perfs in the 898-seat Lyttelton.

But that was before, says National associate producer Padraig Cusack, “we suspected, about the third week of rehearsals, that we had something really, really extraordinary.”

Instead, “History Boys” all but made history, playing to 98% capacity across 222 perfs throughout the year. It is the South Bank venue’s biggest hit, says Cusack, since “The Madness of George III,” a Bennett-Nick Hytner collaboration in 1991.

Its success explains the continued interest in the title, which includes a return visit (with a new cast) to the Lyttelton in September, followed by an eight-week tour, which comes back to the National through the Christmas holiday period and into 2006 for 60 perfs total. Desmond Barrit will play the part of larger-than-life teacher Hector, originated by Richard Griffiths.

Griffiths returns to the Bennett play for 2006 engagements in Hong Kong (Feb. 14-18), New Zealand (Feb. 24-28) and five weeks at the Sydney Theater Company (March 4-April 7).

From there, it’s Broadway, in an entirely separate financial venture to open April 23 at the Broadhurst. The $2 million New York stand will feature the entire National company for a 20-week engagement, save for Diane Fletcher replacing Frances de la Tour in the play’s lone female role, Mrs. Lintott.

“History Boys” marks the fourth National venture for Gotham producers Bob Boyett and Bill Haber. Their other imports have been “Jumpers” and “Democracy,” both of which faltered at the box office, and “The Pillowman,” which is expected to recoup before it exits this month.

Whereas the different stops on the self-financing international tour are paid for by the receiving venues, the Broadway gig will mark the 71-year-old Bennett’s first stab at Broadway since “Habeas Corpus” in 1975; that show featured a then-unknown Richard Gere.

Boyett expects the play, and Hytner’s much-laureled production, to be an event. “We have so many more people who would like to invest in the show than we have room for,” he says.

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