Friday, January 30, 2009

Circuit's "History Boys": Not Quite Right, Not Half Bad

Posted on Fri, Jan 30, 2009 at 4:00 AM

"I didn't realize you wrote such bloody awful poetry, Mr. Shankley" --The Smiths, "Frankly Mr. Shankley"

I left Circuit Playhouse's mostly entertaining production of The History Boys with a song on my lips. It wasn't, I am sorry to say, one of the songs prominently featured in the show's ostentatious sound design. It was a Smiths' song, "The Queen is Dead." This verse in particular:

"I checked all the registered historical facts and I was shocked and ashamed to discover how I'm the 18th pale descendant of some old queen or other… Oh, has the world changed, or have I changed? Oh has the world changed, or have I changed?"

Yes, this is a theater column and I really should be writing more about this self-consciously poignant, clever, and literate play that author Alan Bennett has set in the '80s, in a boys' school in England, where everyone seem to be a little bit homosexual except for the predictably doltish headmaster who can't stop squeezing his secretary. But honestly, I'd rather think about The Smiths, a band I closely associate with prep school in the '80s. Johnny Marr's crashing, post-glam guitar sounded like a throbbing beacon from space while Morrissey, the wounded gay protagonist of his own personal A.E. Houseman poem, sang baleful songs inspired in equal parts by George Elliot and Groucho Marx.

Driving home from History Boys I couldn't help but wonder why I'd been subjected to loud samples of bands like The Boomtown Rats, The Clash, and Pet Shop Boys at a play that would have been so much better served by groups like Joy Division, The Damned, or The Cure. Even Duran Duran's awful but hugely successful "The Reflex" would have been perfect for the bit where it's revealed that Hector, an eccentric but beloved general studies teacher likes to "fiddle with" his students' genitals while -- improbably -- driving them about on a motorcycle.

"I'm on a ride and I want to get off, but they wont slow down the roundabout," Simon LeBon whined. "I sold the Renoir and the TV set, don't want to be around when this gets out." It's a perfect fit.

While marveling over all the missed opportunities for a production team determined to bring period music to bear on a show about developing sexual identities in England in the '80s it occurred to me that although History Boys had it’s heart in the right place it was somehow out of tune.

"This is a cliché," snaps Irwin, the amoral, if intellectually dazzling history teacher who's been brought in to groom an exceptionally bright group of young men prior to their interviews for Oxford and Cambridge. One of Irwin's students, a lothario in turned-up lapels who's been banging the school secretary and exhaustively comparing the experience to German political history between world wars, had just offered Irwin a thank-you blowjob for opening his mind to the idea that historical facts are never as useful as a good angle or a sexy story.

The audience is probably not supposed to like Irwin much. He begins the show with a Richard III-style admission of villainy, as he explains how to go on TV and make the case that eliminating the right to trial by jury and the assumption of innocence is actually an expansion of civil liberties.

"Oh, but clichés can be fun, Irwin's amorous student answers, "that's how they got to be clichés." And this, I'm sorry to report, is the thin thesis of an otherwise delightful play that is genuinely full of big ideas.

Everything about History Boys is cliché to such a degree that it has to be confronted. It's Goodbye Mr. Chips, Rushmore, Dead Poets Society, Catcher in the Rye, and Measure for Measure rolled up in one big salute to Henry VIII.

But it is fun, and the Thatcher-era questions about manipulating language for political advantage are sexy indeed in the context of a post-Tony Blair, post-George W. Bush world. Well, at least in the same sense that all those '80s Goths thought Dracula, and torture, and death were sexy.

Dave Landis, Playhouse on the Square's reliable workhorse, pulls double-duty this time out playing Hector, the play's weirdly heroic pedophile and sharing directing duties with Rhodes' artistic director Julia "Cookie" Ewing. As the troubled professor making his students fall in love with dirty vaudeville songs and sonnets shouted at the top of one's lungs, he clowns and cries and passionately passes on romantic notions about how we feather our deathbeds with knowledge. And it's difficult not to root for him even when the ugly truth is out there.

As Irwin, Eric Duhon pulls off the very difficult task of finding attractive qualities an icy and easily unsympathetic character. The students are played enthusiastically by a who's-who of young Memphis talent: Steven Brown, DJ Hill, Joe McDaniel, Michael Towle, Ed Porter, Darrin Miller, and Omair Khattak.

Irene Crist has been on a real wining streak having turned in a spectacular performance as Vivian Leigh in Orson's Shadow last Season. She's only so so as Mrs. Lintott, a history teacher and the play's grumpy conscious. Like Irwin's opening monologue all of Lintott's well-made points about gender roles and their relationship to history feel tacked on.

Now I'm thinking about "Cemetery Gates," a droll dash of literary criticism masquerading as a song that found poor put upon Morrissey taking unoriginal artists to task. "There's always someone, somewhere with a big nose, who knows, they'll trip you up and laugh when you fall," he sang scoldingly. I don’t want to sound like the guy with the big nose, but History Boys, which is still a joy in its own right, really needed to find room for Smiths.

History Boys is on stage at Circuit Playhouse through February 15th. Call 726-4656 for ticket information.

by Chris Davis

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