The trauma, hope, and withering grind of being in high school is familiar to us all, but few have functioned at the heady level of the gifted English school lads in The History Boys. Still, the script by Alan Bennett makes their world richly accessible, and this Beck Center production is so consistently superior that you wish the three-hour show (with intermission) were twice as long.
Winner of the Tony Award for Best Play in 2006, Boys centers around eight scholars in the 1980s — most of them trying to wrangle acceptance from the elite Oxford or Cambridge — who are getting ready for their university entrance exams.
These fellows, for the most part terrifyingly bright, are overseen by the requisite stern headmaster, Felix Armstrong (a fine Michael Regnier). But the boys' true mentor is Hector, a charmingly eccentric teacher who bends his inventive lesson plans to suit the mood of the day.
Into the mix is thrown Irwin, a young teacher whom Armstrong has brought in to help give the boys an edge in their university application techniques. Irwin uses knowledge as a tool to shape and spin each boy's prospective exam answers. Underneath all this cerebral byplay is a torrent of sexual tension and a scandal involving both students and faculty.
Director Sarah May, when she's at the top of her game, is unsurpassed in shaping and pacing a play to reveal the meaning at its heart. And her work here is simply stunning. Weaving the characters in and out of classrooms and offices on Beck's expansive stage, she helps her cast capture every nuance and comedic spark in Bennett's script.
As for the players, it's hard to imagine a better group. As Hector, Dana Hart is the embodiment of a fiercely independent professor. He conveys his warmth for the boys while maintaining his intellectual rigor and is just as believable when things turn ugly. Also excellent is Dan Folino as the contrarian Irwin, challenging the boys to think differently if not necessarily better.
The students themselves are exceptional, both as an ensemble and individually. Eric Fancher gives confident Dakin a sly boyish grace, while Matthew Martin Thomas, as the sexually insecure Posner, grapples with his attraction to Dakin. Other standouts include Max Chernin as Timms, Adam Day Howard as Scripps, and Stuart Hoffman as the scholastically challenged jock Rudge.
By avoiding the clichés, The History Boys says important things about knowledge and identity, and does so with dazzling wit and great style.