The least important theme in Alan Bennett's wonderful play The History Boys is that a great teacher can also be a bad person. Hector, an overweight, 60ish instructor at a lower-tier English college prep for boys, is a popular eccentric who believes in the power of big ideas and the randomness of history. His classroom provides a lively arena for noisy debates about the great men of politics, literature, art and philosophy. But Hector has a secret that will do him in. After the last bell, he picks one student for a lift on the back of his motorcycle. The boys know what to expect, and they joke about whose turn it is to be the pet. Hector, it turns out, is a dirty old pederast, steering the bike with one hand and groping the goods of his young passenger with the other.
If The History Boys, now playing at Uptown Players, weren't such a fine piece of theater, the revelation of Hector's predilection for pretty boys would be all that there is (a mistake Lillian Hellman made with her turgid girls' school lesbian drama, The Children's Hour). But Bennett has made that part of his story merely incidental. This play really is about so many more important things than poor old Hector's fondness for fondling that it's easy to dismiss his fatal flaw as merely the frustrated acting out of a good fellow in decline.
The larger issue at hand, so to speak, is one that could bring out the worst in the saintliest educator—the push toward "teaching to the test." Set in the spin-over-substance culture of the Thatcherite 1980s, The History Boys pits Hector's imaginative approach to education against the pragmatic, anti-aesthetic method used by a new teacher, Irwin, who has been hired by the results-hungry martinet of a headmaster. Not enough grads are getting into Oxford and Cambridge, so Irwin, a prig with a few secrets of his own, is brought in to tutor seniors in the tricks of acing college entrance exams. Never mind the truth about historical facts when writing essay answers, Irwin tells his pupils. Entertainment trumps knowledge. "History nowadays is not a matter of conviction," he says. "It's a performance." He recommends, for instance, cleverly connecting any social or cultural watershed moment to the reign of King Henry VIII.
The History Boys
The History Boys continues through May 3 at Uptown Players. Call 214-219-2718.
Accustomed to Hector's unstructured lessons, which veer off into re-enactments of classic movie scenes, singing of Piaf tunes, recitations of Auden from memory, discussions of the subjunctive tense or improvised sketches in French, the students are resistant to Irwin's ABCs of impressing university admissions folk. Gradually, though, the boys catch on. Hector's way might enrich their minds, but Irwin's guarantees a spot at a school that matters, financial success to follow. And so the souls of Britain's best and brightest are sold to the devil.
As if that's not enough to make the play fascinating—and it is for every one of its funny, fast-moving 150 minutes—woven throughout The History Boys are sharp observations about the combustible energies and complicated sexual urges of male adolescents on the cusp of adulthood. It's Brideshead Revisited via Gossip Girl.
In Uptown's production directed by Bruce R. Coleman, the eight schoolboys hit all the types: brainiac, athlete, outsider, introvert, dull one, cute one, funny one, flirt. The young actors who play them are close to perfect for the parts, with several standouts, notably 22-year-old Alex Ross as the thoughtful one named Scripps. In his theatrical debut, Ross, a recent grad of Oklahoma City University, nails an accent specific to the North of England, plays the piano in several scenes and gives a captivating performance as the play's narrator and most sensitive figure. If Dallas stages had stars, this would be Ross' star-making turn.
Almost everything about the casting and staging of The History Boys says that the producers at Uptown Players have been doing some homework. Like the student characters in Bennett's play, with this production Uptown has learned new tricks about impressing an audience by entertaining with a fresh dash of polish and sophistication. Known and appreciated for R-rated drag comedies, raucous musicals and gay-themed tributes to Broadway, Uptown now graduates to the ranks of serious professional regional theater. This is their best straight play (in the theatrical, not sexual sense) yet. Nothing they've done in eight seasons at what is now the KD Studio Theatre (formerly Trinity River Arts Center) has been so skillfully directed and artfully designed (Coleman also did the set). And lest Uptown's core audience think they've veered too far toward art, thanks to the eight young actors playing the title roles in The History Boys, this show also achieves a high degree of male hotness.
Seriously, the guys in this cast are ga-ga-gorgeous. As they should be. The play throbs with erotic vibes between teachers and students, students and teachers, and students and students (an old Waugh-horse of a theme in so many novels and plays about English schoolboys).
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As Dakin, the precocious rake whose extracurriculars include seducing the school secretary and coming on heavy to Irwin, Brett Thiele is a young Warren Beatty type, with that special brand of luscious-lipped, epicene beauty. Christopher LaBove, as jokey Timms, has the face of an angel and talent that puts those eye-candy Twilight kids to shame. Blake Blair, as Rudge, the dimwitted rugby player, has the swagger of a teenage Liam Neeson, but blonder and less glowering. Corey Cleary-Stoner (playing Posner), Alan Jackson (Crowther), Aaron Sanchez (Akthar), Andrew Worley (Lockwood)—all have pretty faces and are pretty fine in the acting department.
The actors playing the grown-ups don't get such high marks, unfortunately. They fumble their English accents and lack physical dynamism. As Irwin, David Plunkett gets a low C-minus for letting his British pronunciations slip and speaking lines stiffly and with unconvincing emotion. Playing the headmaster, Rick Espaillat is simply out of his range, terribly miscast in a role that needed a much stronger actor. As the only woman on the faculty, Wendy Welch delivers one major bit of oratory in the second act—a rant about the omission of women's contributions to history—but she relays it crisply and rigidly, like Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins.
Bradley Campbell uses his girth to good effect as Hector, and he handles the speeches adequately. But he sometimes runs out of steam, disappearing in the presence of the feisty younger players. His Hector does come to the fore when defending old-school ways of instilling a love of learning: "The best moments in reading are when you come across something—a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things—which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours."
And the best moments in live theater are when you come across a play with so much to say about so many interesting subjects as The History Boys. Winner of Tonys and Oliviers for its Broadway and London productions (the stage cast also starred in the 2006 film version), it already feels like a classic, with a relevance that has a wide reach. Schools on both sides of the Atlantic now, sadly, prefer Irwins over Hectors. Teaching to the test trumps engagement of the intellect. And no one memorizes Auden anymore.