If you consider the Robin Williams movie “Dead Poets Society” a classic, then don’t bother reading this review. I found the movie about prep-school boys and their unorthodox teacher pretty clunky. And Tom Shulman’s stage adaptation of his 1989 screenplay, which opened Thursday at Off Broadway’s Classic Stage Company, is even slightly less watchable.
Between 1989 and now, Alan Bennett brought the Tony-winning “History Boys” to the stage. No one ever accused Bennett of ripping off Schulman, but now it looks like maybe he did. Both vehicles are something of a fraud. In each play, we’re supposed to find an unconventional teacher adventurous and risk-taking with his respective students, who of course have been repressed by academe.
Forget that “Society” is set in 1950s America and “Boys” in 1980s England. Schulman and Bennett are selling the same benign, easily digested concept of individuality. You have to go back to Lindsay Anderson’s “If….” from 1969 (based on Jean Vigo’s even more classic “Zero de conduit” from 1933) to find a truly startling portrait of repression and revolution in a boys’ school.
In the film version of “Society,” Williams is pleasantly antic as the teacher John Keating. He’s the kind of prof who taught you nothing but at least sitting in his class wasn’t a bore. Sitting through Schulman’s play is a bore. It brought back those endless hours in school, watching the clock to see when the play, I mean, the class would end. Also, if a person were truly adventurous and risk-taking, why would he graduate from school only to go back to school to be a teacher?
Jason Sudeikis’ Keating isn’t entertaining. He’s a self-satisfied, full-of-himself professor. Williams’ lovable humor could sometimes turn cloying. Sudeikis’ smugness, on the other hand, never fails to be obnoxious. Keating is supposed to break through the boys’ repression to unleash their true talent and individuality. The problem is, Keating’s tactics are offensive, and demanding that he be called Captain is the least of it. Unbearable is the scene where he mocks his students’ mannerisms, the way they talk and walk. His idea of teaching English literature is to have his students stand on their desks to get a different perspective of the world. Let’s see what score that gets them on their SATs.
The teacher in “The History Boys” pulls similar get-to-know-yourself stunts. His saving grace is that Bennett made him a closet pedophile who groped the boys on the back of his motorbike. It gave the play a smidgen of controversy, even if you couldn’t believe that Richard Griffiths was ever capable of riding a motorbike solo, much less in tandem.
The big controversy in “Society” is that Keating lures the boys into creating a secret society where they read poetry aloud to each other. Worse, he convinces a student (Thomas Mann) to try out for a school play against his father’s objections. Oh, for the future days of STDs and crystal meth in our schools to spike things up. It doesn’t help that the father (Stephen Barker Turner) and headmaster (David Garrison) are written (and performed) as though Charles Dickens were having a bad day.
John Doyle directs in a style that can best be described as gothic minimalism.