Dead Poets Society
The classic film about a non-conformist teacher at a boy’s prep school in 1959 has been successfully adapted for the stage with its quaintness intact.
Author Tom Schulman won the 1989 Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for his ode to non-conformity. It was nominated and won a number of other awards including Best Foreign Film from the French César Awards. The Latin phrase Carpe diem (Seize the Day) became in vogue due to the film’s domestic and international box-office success.
Peter Weir’s direction was cinematically inspired. The memorable cast included rising young actors Ethan Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard. It was a grand showcase for the dramatic and comedic talents of the dynamic Robin Williams, who played the inspirational English teacher John Keating.
Set in 1959 at a New England boys’ prep school, the familiar clashes between idealism and authority were shrewdly depicted. As a play, the treatment of these themes is uplifting but slight.
Mr. Shulman has adeptly reconfigured his film script for the theater. The characters are all well drawn and the dialogue crisply propels the plot. That concerns the debatably positive or harmful effects of a charismatic teacher on 16-year-old boys. A controversial article published in the school newspaper and encouraging a student on a medical career path to try to be an actor are the main complications.
These students are being groomed for Ivy League universities, white collar professions and to take their places in Upper Class American society. Should they be exposed to notions of free will that conflicts with their conservative backgrounds? Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau get a lot of attention.
Shulman cleverly and swiftly imparts a large amount of exposition by having the autocratic headmaster in a requisite academic robe address the audience. That this role is played by stage and television veteran David Garrison is a great asset. The now mature Mr. Garrison eschews clichés and opts for a pragmatic and wry characterization that is refreshingly sympathetic. In a chilling scene he beats a student with his belt and it comes across as a matter of practicality rather then as sadistic.
That sequence is just one of the highlights of John Doyle’s commanding direction. Best known for his vibrant minimalist approach to musicals, Mr. Doyle brings that precise and visually expressive focus to this play. The cast of ten is expertly placed and moved around the relatively bare and spacious stage creating tension, excitement and striking tableaus that all connect to the story. There are also many presentational flourishes.
The audience doesn’t receive programs when they enter the theater. Later on the actors playing the students walk around and charmingly give them out. Chairs on the stage are represented by stacks of books that the students quickly pile and later remove as the scenes change.
The back wall of the stage is a voluminous assemblage of floor to ceiling bookcases packed with vintage volumes and a ladder to reach the highest shelves. There are also trophies, a blackboard and personal items on display. This creation by scenic designer Scott Pask is dazzling.
Japhy Weideman’s lighting design and Matt Stine’s sound design subtly contributes to the clear sense of space and time. Ann Hould-Ward’s fine costume design is primarily regulation blue blazers, gray slacks, gray sweater vests and ties for the students and suitably scholastic attire for the other characters.
The accomplished physical aspects of the production do not overpower the sensitive performances.
Television and film performer Jason Sudeikis gives an engaging and highly likeable performance as the influential teacher.
The talented and youthful ensemble playing the students collectively suggests that they’re 16 years old though they are older. They include William Hochman, Cody Kostro, Yaron Lotan, Zane Pais, and Bubba Weiler who are all appealing and have their moments to shine. Thomas Mann is quite poignant as the one defying his domineering father.
He is forcefully played by Stephen Barker Turner. The lovely Francesca Carpanini comically makes an impression during her brief role as the potential girlfriend of one of the young men.
Though well-crafted and expertly presented, Dead Poets Society with its quaint message and rehashed themes of the coming of age youth who must face painful truths is amiably underwhelming.
Dead Poets Society (thru December 18, 2016)
Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit http://www.classicstage.org
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission
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