‘History Boys’ isn’t history making at Playhouse

Production is under-developed, requires tightening

Written By Amy Philips-Haller, For The Globe

The Conservatory Theater Company’s performance of the 2006 Tony-Award winning “History Boys” is like expecting a top-shelf liquor, only to be handed a watered-down version. 

Playwright Alan Bennett (“Talking Heads,” “The Madness of King George III”) wrote the highly regarded drama as a reflection on his own education experiences.  In a 2006 television interview, Bennett recalled his Oxford University admission.  “I felt like a fake,” he said. His entrance in the highly esteemed university was based on his ability to successfully maneuver through the methods of test taking, lacking an authentic love of learning.

Enter characters Hector and Irwin, teachers at a Northern England grammar school in the 1980s where Bennett’s story takes place.  Hector taught the delight of learning, while Irwin focused on methods used to achieve high test scores.  Whether in the script or on stage, the men and the actors were opposites.

But this Hector, as depicted in Thursday night’s preview, is an unconvincing character. Actor Michael Morley (“Cabaret,” “Kiss Me Kate,” “42nd Street”) is an unconvincing Hector.  His dialect floats between British, American, and an occasional dash of German. It is hard to visualize Morley as an old man, when neither his hair nor his makeup show any signs of aging.  His classroom scenes lack an intimacy with students, while he, ironically, makes advances on his 18- and 19-year-old pupils.

Meanwhile, Evan Wormald (“Cabaret,” “Tales of Fourth Grade Nothing”) makes the grade with a strong performance as Irwin. In a pivotal scene in which the teacher urges his students to think outside of academic norms, Wormald leads his castmates with compelling enthusiasm.  A bit of magic takes place as he circled through and around desks pushing students to join the intellectual banter.  For a moment, the classroom scene awakens with a passionate academic fervor.  Bravo!

Perhaps the best performance is by Conservatory Theater Company veteran William Bureau who plays Dakin, a student who offers comic relief, sexual exploits and experimentation.  He never faltered from his British dialect or delivery, and he meets the challenges presented to his character.  In one scene, the class role-plays with Hector entirely in French.  Imagine the challenges associated with connecting a mainly English-speaking audience to a scene that is not performed in the audience’s native language.  Yet Bureau nails it with animated facial gestures and physical performance. Theater-goers chimed in with well-timed laughter and gasps at all the right moments in reward for Bureau’s skill as an outstanding actor.

Unfortunately, no single performance could save this production.  Director Sheila McKenna (Conservatory Theater Company, Quantum Theater, Bricolage Production Company) underutilized the creative advantages a black box theater lends.  A blank canvass, this theater mileiu provides endless opportunities to embellish the moods and atmosphere of the drama—as well as to engage theater goers.  Lighting, set design and sound effects can play their own, unique starring role in this kind of setting.

These elements can breathe life into an empty space. That was not the case here.  On a rare occasion, McKenna employed a spotlight effectively Thursday night, but the stage lighting did not typically accentuate the moment or mood. In one creative effect, for example, McKenna employed lighting effectively to facilitate a set change. The black background was lit with a white chalk-like sketch of a library, church or city. 

McKenna used the space as if it were a proscenium set-up.  Desks and actors normally played to the front of the stage, and two-thirds of the audience was minimally addressed, making it often difficult to hear. McKenna also needs to polish the blocking of the scenes and the segue between them, to smooth out what sometimes is a rough transition.

In the original Broadway version of “History Boys,” video was used on the backdrop to lead from one scene to another. This element was not included in McKenna’s version, making the flow much harder to follow.  Music from the 1980s was not enough to introduce the next scene or put it into context. 

It is worth noting that the second act brought vast improvement with timing, acting, creative use of space, lighting and sound effects.  Perhaps audience reaction is the best form of measurement in this case.  During intermission, nearly two-dozen audience members left.  Those who remained, closed the show with a standing ovation.

Like Bennett’s experience with admission into Oxford, McKenna used method to successfully direct the play.  One more performance merits noting:  In the final scene, students gather to sing “Bye Bye Blackbird.” They fill the theater with a thick rich melody and pitch perfect tones that capture the essence of the play’s final moments, which are a demonstration that a love of learning has fallen silent to method.

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Michael Morley’s name.