The History Boys

    
Review by Willard Manus

THE HISTORY BOYS, Alan Bennett's bittersweet play about eight English middleclass schoolkids trying to cope with the pressures of university exams--and their own burgeoning sexuality--was a big success in London and New York. The movie was a surprising flop, but that didn't keep the Broadway producers from sending out a road company which played recently at the Ahmanson Theatre.
     

    
Directed by Paul Miller, a Brit who has recast the play with American actors, the Ahmanson's HISTORY BOYS might not have the ensemble perfection and panache of the original theatre production, but it still comes off well, thanks to a bravura performance by Dakin Mathews as Hector, the unconventional teacher who tries to instill a pure, rather than pragmatic, respect for learning in his rowdy, irreverent pupils. His old-fashioned love for literature and art clashes with the views of a new teacher, Irwin (Peter Paige) and the headmaster (H. Richard Greene), who are only interested in concrete results--how many kids will qualify for Oxford and Cambridge. It's not how you play the game that counts--only the winning of it.

Caught between these two contradictory forces are the kids. They can't help but like Hector who, after all, teaches French by employing dialogue one might use in a brothel. What complicates things, though, is that Hector is also a bit of a pedophile. The kids accept him for what he is--some of them, like Posner (Alex Brightman), are gay anyway. Sex, like their schooling, is a rite of passage they treat with refreshing equanimity and humor, even if it sometimes bewilders and distresses them.

The system is much more unforgiving and moralistic than the students are, as Hector discovers much to his rue. THE HISTORY BOYS can be read as an attack on modern educational values--and as a plea for tolerance where queer sex is concerned. The play wobbles at times in its exploration of those themes, but in the end Bennett's crisp and witty dialogue--and the slick acting and production values--manage to carry the day.

Now running at the Ahmanson is the musical, THE COLOR PURPLE, produced by Oprah Winfrey. Through March 9, 2008.

Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. Call 213-628.2772 or visit centertheatregroup.org.