THE HISTORY BOYS * Written by Alan Bennett * Directed by Nicholas Hytner * Broadhurst Theatre, New York City (open-ended run).

The prestige hit play of the Broadway season, Alan Bennett’s The History Boys is a smart, funny, moving, and veddy veddy British theatrical essay on contemporary education. Set in the mid-1980s (the between-scenes soundtrack uses Dire Straits, the Smiths, and Madness as sonic guideposts), the play follows eight top graduates from a regional high school as they prepare entrance exams for Oxford and Cambridge. Their primary tutor, the Falstaffian Hector (Richard Griffiths), campaigns for a classical education, stuffing the lads’ high-powered brains with poetry, music, literature, and French language (when they’re not taking turns receiving crotch-fondling rides on the professor’s Harley). Fretting that free-thinkers won’t impress Oxbridge, the status-conscious headmaster (Clive Merrison) brings in Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) to provide more cold-blooded coaching on how to impress exam-givers, wielding extraneous bits of knowledge like tricks hidden up magicians’ sleeves. 

Dense and epigrammatic, the play turns overly schematic at times, dictating the audience’s responses (art: good! journalism: bad!) in a way that Tom Stoppard or David Hare would disdain. But the impeccably staged production by out gay director Nicholas Hytner makes any melodramatic excesses forgivable, with the help of a snazzy set designed by Bob Crowley and a superb ensemble cast. 

No British schoolboy drama is complete without some gay subplot, but here the gay material is especially nuanced, ambiguous, even subversive. The one kid Hector doesn’t touch, because he’s younger and less developed, is Posner (a lovely performance by Samuel Barnett), the gay kid who most craves attention from older men. Without condoning Hector’s lack of boundaries – as his friend and colleague Mrs. Lintott (played by the deliciously crusty Frances de la Tour) notes, “A grope is still a grope” -- Bennett dares to suggest that there are some things more damaging to students than touching their pee-pees. The boys themselves certainly think so. “Are we scarred for life?” asks Dakin (handsome Dominic Cooper), the cynical cutie whose fatal attractiveness becomes a major plot point. “Let’s hope so,” says Scripps (Jamie Parker), the aspiring priest. “Maybe it’ll turn me into Proust.”

The Advocate, June 6, 2006