EmptyAhmanson Theatre, Los Angeles
Through Dec. 9
It's like an ingenious British antidote to Robin Williams and his long-suffering poets society. It's the Los Angeles premiere of Alan Bennett's wildly successful, prize-winning play, apparently on its way to becoming an international franchise.
Set in the 1980s in the postindustrial city of Sheffield in northern England, "The History Boys" observes and analyzes the efforts of eight students, and their three professors, studying for exams that might get them into Oxford or Cambridge.
Most impressive is how Bennett's writing catches each character's essential inner consciousness so precisely that it allows each actor to inhabit those characters completely and give almost uniformly outstanding performances. And as if it were meant to underline the strength of the cast as a whole, the choppy nature of the pacing combined with the frequent use of specially filmed video sequences to create transitional bridges or illustrate offstage action means that no actor can dominate the proceedings for more than a few minutes at a time.
The overall result is a connoisseur's delight of spoken recitatives, arias and ensembles (with an occasional show tune thrown in for good measure) that veers unpredictably from overtones of Lewis Carroll to virtuoso displays of excerpts from Auden, Larkin, Stevie Smith, et al.
The long first act in particular is a tour de force of exposition, with Bennett relishing the introduction of one seductively unique character after another, accompanied by an unfolding process in which each reveals more and more about their intellectual life and occasionally confused sexual identities.
The students' chief accomplice at first is an eccentric old professor named Hector (florid-faced Dakin Matthews), whose belief in education as being more than facts -- and reliance on a wide swatch of traditional and pop culture -- subsequently is challenged by a bushy-tailed teaching assistant (Peter Paige) who lives in a repressed delirium of deconstructionism. The third teacher (Charlotte Cornwell, played with a magnificent hint of Helen Mirren), might be the best educator of the trio, though she is wise (and resigned) enough to let nature take its course.
There is no question that the play sounds a deeply personal, complex chord for Bennett, which could be composed of many of the characters, either singly or together. But at just those points when he seems to come close to a particular character, he finds some reason to distance himself. In the much shorter second act, it is too often the need to tidy up loose ends, some of which -- the Holocaust, the success of the rugby-playing Rudge (Cord Jackman) -- seem like intrusive afterthoughts.
Bennett even holds the death of Hector, which is accompanied mythiclike by a symbolic cutting of Irwin's Achilles heel, at arm's length, so that it makes a logical point but brings us no closer to an insight of where Bennett's heart actually lies.
"History Boys" is likely to become the talk of the town, especially considering its surprisingly short run (only through Dec. 9). Those who don't understand its wealth of culture-vulture references (including one five-minute stretch spoken almost entirely in French) will not want anyone to know. Those who do understand them will want the whole world to know.
But even the most blase will agree with the long-suffering Posner (Alex Brightman), whose love for the gorgeous Dakin (Seth Numrich) is cruelly unrequited, when he says: "I can't bear to listen, but I want to hear every word."
THE HISTORY BOYS
Presented by Center Theatre Group
Playwright: Alan Bennett
Director: Paul Miller
Original direction: Nicholas Hytner
Set designer: Bob Crowley
Lighting designer: Mark Henderson
Original sound design: Colin Pink
Sound designer: Jon Gottlieb
Video director: Ben Taylor
Music: Richard Sisson
Casting: Erika Sellin
Video designer: Austin Switser
Hector: Dakin Matthews
Irwin: Peter Paige
Mrs. Lintott: Charlotte Cornwell
Headmaster: H. Richard Greene
Dakin: Seth Numrich
Posner: Alex Brightman
Scripps: Brett Ryback
Rudge: Cord Jackman
Lockwood: Adam Armstrong
Timms: Sean Marquette
Akthar: Ammar Ramzi
Crowther: Demond Robertson