By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic
There’s something to be said for just sitting in a chair and listening to the language being used by someone who knows more about making it shimmer than just about anyone else currently writing for the stage.
And so it is with Alan Bennett’s 2005 comedy/drama The History Boys directed by Sheila McKenna for the Point Park University Conservatory at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. On top of everything else offered by this precise and entertaining production, just hearing the sumptuous words Bennett spills out over the footlights is its own unique treasure.
The History Boys continues through April 14 at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. 305 Forbes Avenue, Downtown. pittsburghplayhouse.com
The play is set in the 1980’s at a grammar school in the north of England. Eight young men are in the process of applying for admission as history students to either Oxford or Cambridge and the headmaster – in hopes of improving the school’s reputation – has planned a campaign of tutoring and study to help them ace the entrance exam.
So far they’ve been under the tutelage of Mrs. Lintott; a bracing and steely sort of woman with few remaining illusions. Their current teacher is Douglas Hector, the quintessential rumpled, aged English eccentric whose classes are free-flowing and unbound. Hector’s life and passion is learning and he is driven to teach the boys that knowledge for the simple joy of knowing is the only goal worth having.
That puts him in direct conflict with the latest hire – Irwin. A young, whip smart bit of flash who believes that what you know isn’t nearly as important as how you present it and if the choice comes down to truth or style, the latter always wins.
The History Boys is the battle between Hector and Irwin for the souls of eight young men just on the cusp of understanding. Hector represents an older view of a grander world where Art and Culture are venerated for ennobling humanity. Irwin is Bennett’s embodiment of the Mrs. Thatcher’s England where Art and Culture are of use only if they can be commodified.
But Bennett’s too good a playwright to create such a one-sided argument and both men have their own particular moral and ethical conflicts and those struggles bring the play depth and complexity.
There’s also a great exuberance in the script as these eight students begin taking their first steps as adults, that rush of discovery and the delight/terror of life’s unlimited potential.
The fact that almost everyone ends up miserable … well, that’s a very Northern England thing, right?
Director McKenna drives this large cast of Conservatory students to wring out every last emotional beat in the play; each actor places the reality of their characters front and center from start to finish.
Michael Morley is about 40 years too young for a role making specific statements about diminishment and decline, but he brings so much craft and theatrical truth to the performance you’re almost never aware of it.
Evan Wormald gives the role of Irwin a vaguely menacing quality of hidden, lethal intelligence and makes the character a man so terrified of life he’s chosen to live in his head.
Somerset Young plays the Headmaster’s craven intellectual mediocrity to great, comic effect and Malle Winter gets one of Bennett’s best-ever pieces of writing – a monologue about women’s place in history – and knocks in out of the park.
The students playing the students are uniformly spot on and funny and I’m glad to mention William Bureau and Michael Krut as Dakin and Scripps and, most especially Jack Holmes’ moving portrayal of Posner.
It’s an evening of bliss all the way around.