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Groping toward enlightenment.

The History Boys

* Written by Alan Bennett * Directed by Nicholas Hytner

* Broadhurst Theatre, New York City (through September 3)

The prestige hit play of the Broadway season, Alan Bennett's The History Boys is a funny, moving, and veddy, veddy British theatrical essay on contemporary education. Set in the mid 1980s, the play follows eight top graduates from a regional sixth form school as they prepare for entrance exams for Oxford and Cambridge. Their primary tutor, the Falstaffian Hector (Richard Griffiths), campaigns for a classical education, stuffing the lads' high-powered brains with poetry, music, literature, and French (when they're not taking turns receiving crotch-fondling rides on the professor's Harley). Fretting that freethinkers won't impress Oxbridge, the status-conscious headmaster (Clive Merrison) brings in Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) to provide more cold-blooded coaching on how to impress exam-givers.

Dense and epigrammatic, the play turns overly schematic at times, dictating the audience's responses in a way that Tom Stoppard or David Hare would disdain. But the impeccably staged production by out director Nicholas Hytner makes any melodramatic excesses forgivable, with the help of a superb ensemble cast and a snazzy set designed by Bob Crowley.

No British schoolboy drama is complete without some gay subplot, but here the gay material is especially nuanced, ambiguous, and even subversive. The one kid Hector doesn't touch, because he's younger and less developed, is Posner (a lovely performance by Samuel Barnett), the gay kid who most craves attention from older men. Without condoning Hector's lack of boundaries--as his friend and colleague Mrs. Lintott (played by the deliciously crusty Frances de la Tour) notes, "A grope is still a grope"--Bennett dares to suggest that there are some things more damaging to students than touching their pee-pees. The boys themselves certainly think so. "Are we scarred for life?" asks Dakin (handsome Dominic Cooper), the cynical cutie whose fatal attractiveness becomes a major plot point. "Let's hope so," says Scripps (Jamie Parker), the aspiring priest. "Maybe it'll turn me into Proust."
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Title Annotation:The History Boys
Author:Shewey, Don
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Theater review
Date:Jun 6, 2006
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