What kind of classroom is this?
You might well wonder with "The History Boys," a curious but triumphant play being produced by Palm Beach Dramaworks in West Palm Beach.
As they spend the final few days of their senior year preparing for university entrance exams, eight precociously bright boys are reenacting, with melodramatic zeal, tearjerker movie scenes from "Now, Voyager" and "Brief Encounter." Every so often, one of them will stride over to a piano and launch into a cabaret tune. At one point, they immerse themselves in a French lesson by staging a visit to a Parisian brothel, dropped trousers included. Oh, and it becomes clear, as the play progresses, that their teacher is quite fond of fondling the pupils' penises while giving them a ride on his scooter.
What kind of classroom is this, indeed?
Well, it is the construct of a provocative, comic drama by playwright Alan Bennett, and it is interpreted here, confidently and superbly, by director J. Barry Lewis. The Tony Award-winning play debuted in London in 2004 and in New York in 2006, the same year it was made into a movie, with Bennett penning the screenplay.
Set in the mid 1980s, "The History Boys" is really a discussion on the value of a classical education. Is it enough to acquire knowledge for the sheer love of learning, or must an education be finessed for test-taking access to top-drawer colleges?
Under the freeform tutelage of general studies schoolmaster Hector (Colin McPhillamy), the students have exuberantly taken to giving full flight to their burgeoning intellectual abilities. They are also guided by crisp but maternal history teacher Mrs. Lintott (Angie Radosh). But the school's headmaster (Rob Donohoe) wants quantitative results, so he brings in an additional instructor, Irwin (Cliff Burgess), who has a more practical and conventional approach to education. But as Dramaworks artistic director William Hayes asks in a program note: "Is it worth it if it produces a means to an end — the end being getting into the finest schools? This is the great quandary in 'The History Boys.'"
It is all placed perfectly on the stage with Dramaworks' signature sure-handed production, from costumes and sets to sound and lighting design. Seamless scene changes, swathed in 1980s synth-pop make the 135-minute play (with a 15-minute intermission) seem considerably shorter. The cast is magnificent, particularly the actors portraying the boys. They manage to get that jocular thing just right, not an easy pitch to calibrate one imagines. It's hard to catch them acting, an especially tricky thing when Bennett occasionally gives them and the instructors a speech too clever by far for even erudite mortals. Only then do you detect a faint whiff of thea-tuh acting, before it is folded away by the nimble craft of the performers.
Mounting this play here and now is a brash act. Bennett's arch arguments are pointedly placed in the context of the 1980s, before every young person became the star of their own social media universe. Before any story told about high school had to, by definition, include sexting and selfies. Before intellectuals were looked upon with suspicion, and before being elite was equative with impotence. There is something boiling and roiling underneath Bennett's lofty words, and it reeks of regret and anger at something lost.
"The History Boys" is running through Jan. 3 at the Don and Ann Brown Theatre, 201 Clematis St., in West Palm Beach. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and 7 p.m. Sundays, with 2 p.m. matinees Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets cost $64 ($10 for students with ID). To order, call 561-514-4042 or go to PalmBeachDramaworks.org