Jamie Parker, Andrew Knott, Dominic Cooper, and James Corden
in The History Boys

(Photo Joan Marcus)
Jamie Parker, Andrew Knott, Dominic Cooper, and James Corden
in The History Boys
(Photo Joan Marcus)
In a piece included in his just-published essay collection Untold Stories, the superb English playwright Alan Bennett writes that "good directors are often good teachers" and adds that "theater is often at its most absorbing when it's school." This view is not likely to be endorsed by the tired businessman who's considering a night at a Broadway show. Of course, Bennett -- a donnish figure even when he was one of the Beyond the Fringe jesters -- means that in good drama and comedy, moral lessons are passed on in cunning disguises.

Bennett's The History Boys is explicitly about teachers and schoolboys and what constitutes a true education. It may well be the best bloody play to have opened either on or off Broadway this season. Part of what makes it superior fare is that it concerns something crucial. For the record, the play copped almost every prize in sight when it bowed at London's National Theatre two years ago, and it could repeat the award-nabbing trick here as well.

If your eyes are beginning to glaze over at the mere mention of education as a motivating theme, snap out of it. Bennett has bedded his treatise in a walloping tale of two mentors at a 1980s British grammar school (read "high school") who employ opposed philosophies while preparing a class of eight young men to take their Oxford/Cambridge entrance examinations. Hector (Richard Griffiths), a believer in gentle corporal punishment, also believes to his core that stimulating boys to think by steeping them in art and literature is the best formula for educating them. In contrast, Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) goes for uploading an encyclopedia of historical facts into the boys' noggins and then prodding the young fellows to overturn the standard interpretation of events.

If you don't think this clash of principles makes for engaging theater, put on a dunce cap and go stand in the corner. Bennett's play crackles with the heat and banked threat of a hearth fire. Irwin's strategy is championed by the determined school headmaster (Clive Merrison), who sees great things for himself and his institution if his motley charges impress Oxford and Cambridge. But the boys, an octet of precocious and sharp-tongued (not to say foul-mouthed) lads, clearly respond to Hector's methods and are on their way to becoming quick-witted, independent thinkers -- even though the sweet-voiced Posner (Samuel Barnett) and the taciturn Rudge (Russell Tovey) lag socially in comparison to the sexually predatory Dakin (Dominic Cooper) and the incipient seminarian Scripps (Jamie Parker).

Bennett, whose work is undeservedly less well known in America than that of his peers Tom Stoppard and David Hare, stuffs his narrative with a series of hilarious schoolroom scenes. (Bob Crowley designed the sliding-grey-walled sets, and Ben Taylor provided the many video sequences that cover scene changes; Crowley also did the costumes, Mark Henderson the lights, Colin Pink the sound.) The most uproariously outrageous scene is the one in which Hector, ostensibly teaching French conversation, has the scholars pretending to be characters in a brothel -- until the headmaster arrives and the boys immediately pick up Hector's signal that they shift their improvisation to play soldiers and nurses at a World War I army hospital.

The ingenious Bennett complicates matters by imagining Hector as a married homosexual who enjoys fondling his charges when giving them lifts on his motorcycle, thereby stimulating them in more ways than one. The boys find his attentions annoying but don't take them so seriously as to report him to the authorities; that's how sophisticated, or jaded, they are. What may be the best scene in the play occurs just before the first act curtain when Hector, whose errant behavior has been reported by someone not at school, conducts a brilliant tutorial while devastated at his being forced into early retirement.

The play's Broadway producers have laudably imported the original London cast, with two minor exceptions. Leading them as Hector is Richard Griffiths, a girthful and mirthful actor who here resembles a pieced-together Humpty Dumpty riding for another fall. Twinklingly dictatorial in the lighter stretches of the script, he is wounded beyond consolation in the terrific tutorial scene that undoubtedly put a lock on the prizes he has taken home for the role. Stephen Campbell Moore cleverly takes any one-note edge off of Irwin's pragmatic ambition. Clive Merrison's headmaster always seems, amusingly, as if he's preoccupied with constipation.

The lone woman in the play, Frances de la Tour plays incisive lower-form teacher Mrs. Lintott and gets her share of laughs. And then there are the history boys, as fine an ensemble as you'd want: Dominic Cooper, Jamie Parker, Samuel Barnett, James Corden, Russell Tovey, Andrew Knott, Sacha Dhawan, and Rudy Dharmalingam (at the performance I saw). Each is priceless.

At one point in History Boys, when Irwin and Hector are dueling about over their disparate philosophies, the former says to the latter: "Education isn't something for when they're old and grey and sitting by the fire. It's for now. The exam is next month." Hector replies, "What happens after the exam? Life goes on." Alan Bennett's History Boys will enrich the lives of all current or former students who see it.