Transatlantic travel can be a treacherous adventure in the theater. Shows lauded on the London stage often founder in Gotham while Broadway hits have been known to leave West Enders cold. So feeling the ripples of appreciation as a New York audience connects to “The History Boys” makes a captivating work even more deeply satisfying. This very British play from that peerless observer of English life, Alan Bennett, is in many ways sprawling and untidy, but invigoratingly alive with ideas. And Nicholas Hytner’s superb production also is alive with an unruly energy that mirrors the sexual and intellectual vitality of the gifted lads at the play’s center.
The National Theater smash arrives on Broadway after repeat repertory engagements in London, followed by U.K. and international tour stops and the shooting of a film version with the same director and cast, to be released by Fox Searchlight later this year.
Returning to a setting distant in time but close in milieu to that of his first play, “Forty Years On,” Bennett gives ample evidence here of why the British press tirelessly refers to him as “a national treasure.” Among his contemporaries, Tom Stoppard, Michael Frayn and Caryl Churchill are brilliant intellectual playwrights, but Bennett is as much a humanist as an intellectual. His plays are the work of a restless, questioning mind but also of a gentle soul and an immovable outsider whose writing has remained impervious to the effects of success and privilege. It’s the sparkling balance of the literate with the poignant that makes “The History Boys” so enjoyable.
Set in a Northern high school (grammar school in Brit usage) for boys in the mid-1980s, as Margaret Thatcher’s reforms were sweeping the country, the play reflects on the process and purpose of education. At its heart is roly-poly English master Hector (Richard Griffiths), who seeks to inspire his students, teaching them to think for themselves by “lining their minds with some sort of literary insulation, proof against the primacy of fact.” As he says to Mrs. Lintott (Frances de la Tour), a fellow teacher of more conventional methods, “You give them an education. I give them the wherewithal to resist it.”
A beloved, unorthodox teacher viewed as subversive by the establishment forces around him immediately calls up associations with such figures from “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” and “Dead Poets Society.” But Bennett’s approach is more original, and far from black and white.
Hector is both progressive and a representative of the old guard — an impassioned breed of educator gradually being phased out to make way for strategists who coach students to ace exams but do little to instill the deeper desire for learning. His opposition is Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), a young history scholar brought in by the school’s ambitious headmaster (Clive Merrison) to groom the boys for their Cambridge and Oxford entrance exams. But despite the cynicism with which he imparts academic survival skills, Irwin is no soulless nemesis; he’s both suspicious of and awed by Hector.
The veteran teacher is made considerably less benign by his habit of “fiddling” with his sixth-form students while they ride pillion on his motorcycle. As the headmaster observes when the transgressions are brought to his attention, Hector’s advances appeared “more appreciative than exploratory.” And the 18-year-old boys, led by cocky Dakin (Dominic Cooper), are with one exception fully in command of themselves. Bennett doesn’t condone Hector’s behavior but nor does he judge him. The play requires that our sympathies remain with him, and it’s a measure of the writer’s sensitivity and Griffiths’ finely wrought, moving performance that this is achieved.
Bennett’s wise, affectionate depiction of youth distinguishes the play, focusing on two boys in particular. Smart but shallow Dakin employs his sexual magnetism freely to his advantage, while gay, Jewish Posner (Samuel Barnett) wryly and painfully reveals his love for his charismatic classmate, notably in an aching rendition of “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” at the piano.
Like the busy collage of art and pop culture images plastered over the classroom walls of Bob Crowley’s clever utilitarian set, Hector attempts to stoke the boys’ appetites for self-expression, encouraging their immersion in literature, philosophy, movies and popular songs. His discussion with Posner of a poem by Hardy about a fallen soldier is one of the play’s most emotional scenes. Describing the times when the reader recognizes something of himself (“It is as if a hand has come out and taken yours”), Hector explains his vocation but also something of himself in a moment of sudden vulnerability.
Recitals of scenes from “Now, Voyager” and “Brief Encounter” are comic high points, as is a hilarious French lesson, interrupted by the headmaster while the boys are roleplaying a bordello scenario. The young cast is uniformly excellent; in addition to Cooper and Barnett, especially sharp work comes from Jamie Parker as a budding writer whose religious beliefs give him a different perspective, and from Russell Tovey as sports-loving, working-class Rudge, judged to be the dimmest bulb in the class.
That the play strays perhaps unnecessarily into melodrama doesn’t make it any less affecting, and Hytner calibrates the balance between overt comedy and brainy wit, between big-issue sociological considerations and quiet introspection, with a supremely confident hand. The scene-change videos, shot by Ben Taylor, of students and faculty around the school, backed by bursts of ’80s Brit pop (Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, Madness, etc.) supply animated punctuation that helps this lengthy show fly by.
Alongside Griffiths’ illuminating performance, Moore etches a vivid, complex character, self-serving yet far from inhuman and not without his own struggles. Merrison creates a delightfully arch caricature; like Smithers from “The Simpsons” dropped into an academic setting, he’s a noxious blowhard, enthralled by his own perceived wisdom.
With her hangdog face and bone-dry delivery, the sublime de la Tour subtly steals every scene she’s in; she has some of the most memorable lines in a play with an uncommonly high quotability factor. As a woman patronized her entire life and teaching a subject dominated in every sense by men (“History is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men. History is women following behind with the bucket.”) Mrs. Lintott injects an acerbic view that’s just one of many thoughtful reverberations here of a playwright looking on from the margins with incomparably keen skepticism and humor.