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Making a creditable dramatic theater debut in an underwhelming project, Jason Sudeikis puts his own gentle funnyman spin on John Keating, the inspirational English teacher at the starchy all-boys preparatory school in Dead Poets Society. That role’s indelible association with Robin Williams, who played the character onscreen in Peter Weir’s 1989 film, turns out to be less of a snag than the material itself. Director John Doyle brings his customary stripped-down elegance to the production, and elicits sensitive performances from the young actors playing Keating’s students. But Tom Schulman’s thin adaptation of his Oscar-winning screenplay exposes its contrivances and sentimentality, failing to make a strong case for its stage translation.
I’ll acknowledge I may not be this play’s ideal audience, having always felt somewhat ambivalent about the movie, aside from the strength of Williams’ performance and those of then-emerging actors Robert Sean Leonard and Ethan Hawke. Schulman sets up Keating as a free-spirited saint and then martyrs him in predictable fashion, after his impassioned lessons on seizing the day and sucking the marrow out of life cause unsurprising problems for the impressionable 16-year-old lads of tradition-bound Welton Academy in 1959 New England. But it’s difficult to discern the possible rewards even for admirers of the film in this absorbing but unnecessary reproduction.
The project’s most persuasively theatrical element is its design. Scott Pask’s single set is a large rear-wall library with a blackboard at its center, and Doyle gives symbolic weight to books. Stacks of well-worn hardcover texts are lugged from the shelves by the young cast (crisply uniformed by costumer Ann Hould-Ward) to serve as seats in the classroom and elsewhere. And late in the play, when one of the boys has betrayed the group’s principles, the others hurl armloads of the heavy tomes at him in a powerful gesture of rebuke. Japhy Weideman’s lighting also is evocative, particularly in the cave off-campus where the secret club of the title meets.
The Welton students hand out programs as the audience arrives, and both Sudeikis‘ Keating and stern headmaster Paul Nolan (David Garrison) frequently address us directly, fostering our intimate involvement in classroom discussions and school assemblies. But despite those promising ideas, the writing struggles to give the drama a life of its own, independent of the movie. Aside from some minor plot modifications toward the end, Schulman has filleted rather than adapted his text, which rarely strays far from the film, lifting chunks of dialogue word for word. And having the boys hum snatches of the school anthem or Celtic-flavored tunes under the action at various points adds texture, but it also underlines the material’s inherently cinematic conception.
The 100-year-old academy boasts of being the best prep school in the country and the boys are drilled with its four pillars: tradition, honor, discipline and excellence. Transfer student Todd Anderson (Zane Pais) is so painfully shy he plans to keep his head down and observe those rules. But outgoing Neil Perry (Thomas Mann) takes the new boy under his wing and makes him feel included, encouraging him to share in a healthy disrespect for the fusty institution. That instinctual rebellion finds an outlet in the exhortations of their new English teacher to shrug off the sheep mentality and embrace their individuality. “Make your lives extraordinary,” urges Keating, a Welton alumnus.
Adopting Walt Whitman as their spirit guide and “Carpe diem” as their motto, the students (reduced to six for the purposes of stage economy) respond in different ways to Keating’s stimulating new influence. Todd stops stammering and finds a means of self-expression. Knox Overstreet (William Hochman) summons the courage to woo the girl of his dreams, Chris (Francesca Carpanini, in a role even more thankless than her screen counterpart). Charlie Dalton (Cody Kostro) liberates his inner beatnik. And Neil ignores the orders of his authoritarian father (Stephen Barker Turner, far too mild to be effective), who has mapped out his entire future; instead, Neil throws himself with gusto into acting in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Even audiences unfamiliar with the movie are likely to see exactly where the story is headed as dreams are crushed and tragedy ensues, prompting the school administration to seek a scapegoat. Schulman certainly writes with earnest feeling about the virtues of boldness, defiance and action in the face of stifling conformity, and the sad irony of boys being forced into just the kind of blind obeisance that Keating had been teaching them to question. But the drama nonetheless feels like a formulaic Hollywood gloss on very British films about influential teachers who leave a formative mark, like Goodbye, Mr. Chips, or especially, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, the latter based on a novel that became a play en route to the screen.
The performances from the young cast are appealing and often quite affecting, notably Mann, making a confident New York stage debut, and Pais, whose Todd ultimately leads the boys in showing solidarity for the condemned Keating. Garrison also strikes the right tone as the by-the-book headmaster, without making him a caricature. Sudeikis, looking suitably tweedy and professorial, is impressive throughout, drawing on his sketch comedy and improv skills to inject spontaneity and looseness into Keating’s interactions with his students. Even if he can’t hide the shortsighted, romantic naiveté written into the character, he never undersells the dedicated educator’s sincerity.
However, despite the classy production’s strengths, its insurmountable shortcoming is that this drama about forging an identity and being true to one’s self remains an imitation, stuck in the shadow of its source.
Venue: Classic Stage Company, New York
Cast: Jason Sudeikis, Zane Pais, Thomas Mann, Cody Kostro, Bubba Weiler, William Hochman, Yaron Lotan, David Garrison, Stephen Barker Turner, Francesca Carpanini
Director: John Doyle
Playwright: Tom Schulman, based on his screenplay for the Touchstone Pictures film
Set designer: Scott Pask
Costume designer: Ann Hould-Ward
Lighting designer: Japhy Weideman
Music: Jason Michael Webb
Sound designer: Matt Stine
Presented by Classic Stage Company, by special arrangement with Adam Zotovich
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