Monday, February 23, 2009

Cygnet Scores Again With Bennett’s History Boys


Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

San Diego’s Cygnet Theatre, which has moved from its storefront origins in the Rolando district near La Mesa and now produces at the Theatre in Old Town as well as in its original space, officially opens its run of Alan Bennett’s grim satire The History Boys at the Old Town location, 4040 Twiggs Avenue, Saturday, February 28. Judging from the second preview performance on February 20, anyone who goes to see Cygnet’s version of The History Boys is in for a long and somewhat wearing but still entertaining time, in which Bennett’s unusual “take” on the schoolboys-about-to-graduate premise registers effectively thanks to strong direction by Cygnet co-founder Sean Murray and the energetic cast he’s assembled.

The History Boys premiered at London’s National Theatre in 2004 and was filmed two years later, with Bennett writing the screenplay and the original director (Nicholas Hytner) and much of the cast repeating their roles. Inspired by Bennett’s own boyhood — he went to a private high school in his native Leeds, England in the 1940’s, won a history scholarship to Oxford and became a medieval history teacher until he forsook the world of academe for entertainment in the early 1960’s — The History Boys deals with a group of eight students who do surprisingly well on the “A-levels,” the high-stakes tests that determine the college and career fates of most British high-school students, even though their school is a nondescript private high school in the British Midlands.

Eager for the prestige his school can win if they send a cadre of prize students to Oxford or Cambridge, the school’s headmaster (Eric Poppick) decides they need more intensive preparation for the college admissions exams than his own staff teachers, Hector (Tom Stephenson) and Mrs. Lintott (Jillian Frost), can give them. So he enlists an outsider, Irwin (Brian Mackey), a teacher who’s only a few years older than the “history boys” themselves, to tutor them on how to pass the tests and get into Oxford or Cambridge. Irwin’s educational strategy is to teach them to stand out from the better prepared applicants from ritzier schools and higher class backgrounds (in one early speech he points out that in writing essays about Roman history, they’ll be up against students who’ve actually been there) by making them contrarians: if everybody else says bad things about Stalin, for example, try to find something good about him.

This isn’t exactly the freshest premise for a drama, but Bennett’s mordant wit takes off in various directions that make The History Boys a compelling and original work in a well-worn genre. As America adopts an increasingly rigid class structure just as Britain is in the final stages of shaking theirs off — of the five major-party Presidential nominees since 2000, three (George W. Bush, Al Gore and John Kerry) are members of America’s hereditary aristocracy and a fourth (John McCain) married into it — and as a nation that once ridiculed the British educational system’s reliance on high-stakes testing now declares not only individual students but entire schools “successes” or “failures” on the basis of test scores — the seemingly parochial British concerns of The History Boys take on surprising relevance to this country as well as Bennett’s own. In particular, the conflict between Irwin and Hector over their teaching styles — with Hector attempting to give the students knowledge that will make them better, more insightful people while Irwin relentlessly “teaches to the test” — mirrors the argument that’s riven the American educational system since the “No Child Left Behind” law was passed.

The History Boys
also deals with sex in a frank, matter-of-fact way that’s far beyond the angst-ridden treatment it would get from a U.S. playwright writing a similar story. Hector, though married and sixty-something, gets his kicks from taking the boys for rides on his motorcycle and groping them in the process. Bennett writes as if that’s no big deal — “I don’t subscribe to the notion that if somebody puts their hand on your knee it’s going to scar you for life,” he told the New York Times, “partly because when I was a boy, that was expected almost. You just thought, ‘Oh, here we go again’” — just as he has the boys exploring (or at least talking about exploring) sex with both same-sex and opposite-sex partners as if there’s really no difference between them. That, too, isn’t surprising for a writer who in 1987 responded to being asked whether he was Gay or straight by saying it was like asking a man dying of thirst in the desert whether he’d rather have Perrier or Malvern water.

The History Boys has its flaws, and the big one is that it’s too long. Bennett himself cut it during rehearsals for the premiere production, and cut it still further for the film version — the film is 109 minutes long and Cygnet’s live performance is 2 1/2 hours. The second act is beset with so many false climaxes one begins to wonder if the thing will ever end, and in particular will we learn whether the boys get into Oxford or Cambridge (we will) and whether they’ll be the obligatory American Graffiti scene of what happened to them after that (yes). Also, though there are eight “history boys” in all, only about three or four of them really emerge as characters in their own right — Dakin (Bryan Bertrone), the class show-off and flirt; Posner (Tom Zohar), the slightly-built show-tune singer and (to no one’s particular surprise) the one boy who turns out not just Bisexual or “questioning” but outright Gay; Scripps (Kevin Koppman-Gue), who becomes intently religious; and Rudge (Bobby Schiefer), the athlete of the bunch who doesn’t think a college will want him except as a rugby player.

Nonetheless, Bennett has written a strong script that deserves its acclaim — and Murray’s production for Cygnet is tough and energetic, handling Bennett’s many scene changes by having the actors themselves move furniture between scenes in a rambunctious way, often in time to the music used in Matt Lescault-Wood’s effective sound design. Bennett’s script specifies that the play takes place in 1983 (which led Michael Billington, reviewing the original production for the U.K. Guardian, to see it as a metaphor for the country under the rule of hard-Right prime minister Margaret Thatcher) but the class attitudes seem more like those of the 1960’s, each act opens with a framing sequence set in the present (the giveaway is the cell phone used by the first character we see), and the only aspect of the Cygnet production that says “1980’s” is the well-deployed music, mostly the synthesizer-driven “New Wave” dance music of bands like the Cure and the Vapors that resulted from a bastard marriage of disco and punk and was more popular there than here.

As usual, Cygnet has cast strongly. Bertrone stands out as Dakin, as attractive as he needs to be to make his tales of sexual conquests believable and so self-absorbed he seems to be treading on the thin edge of psychopathology. Zohar as Posner is also quite moving, especially in the scene in which he reacts to Irwin’s dismissive account of the Holocaust by pointing out that he lost family members to it. Brian Mackey catches Irwin’s flip cynicism well — though he’s less credible detailing the character’s sexual ambiguity — and Tom Stephenson as Hector grabs his tour de force scene at the end of act one and plays it for all it and he are worth. Eric Poppick gives the headmaster the right sort of bureaucratic insensitivity, and Jillian Frost acquits herself well as the one on-stage woman (others are talked about but never shown) in this otherwise all-male environment.

Cygnet’s productions have generally divided themselves into two groups: beautifully staged productions of great plays and beautifully staged productions of not-so-great plays. For all its quirks, The History Boys is a solid vehicle and Cygnet has done full justice to it.

The History Boys officially opens Saturday, February 28 at the Theatre in Old Town, 4040 Twiggs Street. Tickets can be purchased by visiting Cygnet's website at or calling the box office at (619) 337-1525. Tickets can also be purchased in person by visiting Cygnet's main box office located at the Old Town Theatre.