Reviewed by JUDD HOLLANDER
It's a tough job to transfer an acclaimed movie to the stage, but playwright Tom Schulman gets it right with the stage version of Dead Poets Society, based on his 1989 film of the same name. With its core themes on the dangers of conformity, the work, now at Classic Stage Company, feels both current and timeless.
The story takes place in 1959 at the Weldon Academy A New England all-male prep school where the core values are tradition, honor, discipline and excellence. Though some of the students may be rather irrepressible, as Headmaster Paul Nolan (David Garrison) notes at one point, there is no doubt the boys will graduate squarely in the mold of those who have come before them. However, John Keating (Jason Sudeikis), the new English teacher, may have something to say about that. Keating, a former Weldon student, sees his job as not only to teach the facts and rules of romantic poetry and fiction, but also to get the boys to understand the emotions and images brought forth by such writings.
Keating's ultimate purpose is to help the boys become "free thinkers". Not so that they can deliberately go about railing against the establishment, but rather to find their own path for the future. Not one laid out for them from almost the time they were born. To his students, who at 16 years of age, are chafing inwardly from the restrictions society has placed on them, Mr. Keating's method of teaching is like a cool blast of fresh air.
It's not long before the boys begin to adapt some of these ideas into their own lives. Neil Perry (Thomas Mann) wants to forgo the medical career his parents long ago set out for him and become and actor, something his has long dreamed of doing. Knox Overstreet (William Hochman) is inspired to go after the girl of his dreams (Francesca Carpanini), even though she's "practically engaged" to a high school quarterback. Todd Anderson (Zane Pais) goes from a shy, stuttering lad to one who quite literally finds his own voice. As for Charlie Dalton (Cody Kostro), he takes Keating's message so to heart, he becomes a walking symbol of non-conformity, Insisting his fellow students call him "Nuwanda" and also sneaking an editorial into the school newspaper demanding Weldon go co-educational. Not surprisingly, there are those who object to the changes wrought by Keating's teachings. Such as Nolan, who warns Keating about his methods; and Neil's father (Stephen Barker Turner) who's determined to stop his son's foolishness before it gets out of hand.
As the play makes clear, while's it's almost instinctive to "run with the herd", it's also important to be able to stand out as an individual. These concepts are powerfully demonstrated when Keating puts the boys through a series of marching exercises where we see who tries to keep in step and who does not - and which members of the audience clap in time to the marching.
Hand in hand with this is the idea of "seizing the day" before life passes you by. A point explored when Keating has his class look a picture of students from decades past, all whom have basically been forgotten due to the passage of time. How many of us when we were younger didn't pass similar pictures of students in their own schools without giving them a second thought?
There are also several moments of irony tucked into the show. Such as when Neil's dad makes quite clear how much he and his wife have sacrificed to make life easier for their son. Yet they don't trust him enough to make his own decisions concerning his future. His father instead wanting him to follow the rules he lays out. Quite probably like Neil's father himself was made to do.
Sudeikis brilliantly steps into the role Robin Williams played on screen. Like Williams, Sudeikis keeps the character of Keating nicely low-key, showing him to be knowledgeable, intuitive and carrying a wonderful secret which he'll only share if asked. The actors playing the boys are all very good. Bubba Weiler and Yaron Lotan in addition to those mentioned above making up the balance of Keating's class. It would have been nice however, if some of the roles were expanded more fully. Schulman having the chance to add more scenes and situations to his story should he have chosen. Carpanini, Garrison and Turner also acquit themselves quite well in their sometimes brief, but always pivotal roles.
John Doyle's direction is good for the most part, moving the story nicely and conjuring up the various images that go with the different scenes. The only problem arises during some of the transitional moments. There not being enough differences when the scenes switch, such as from inside the classroom to the school grounds outside. An issue which could have been solved with better use of lighting and movement.
A powerful coming of age tale, Dead Poets Society looks back a time when the status quo ruled and change of any kind was seen as something to be beaten into submission. It's also one of the best plays to be presented anywhere on stage this year.
Featuring Zane Pais (Todd Anderson), Thomas Mann (Neil Perry), Cody Kostro (Charlie Dalton), Bubba Weiler Steven Meeks), William Hochman (Knox Overstreet), Yaron Lotan (Richard Cameron), David Garrison (Paul Nolan), Stephen Barker Turner (Mr. Perry), Jason Sudeikis (John Keating), Francesca Carpanini (Chris).
Dead Poets Society
by Tom Schulman
Based on the Touchstone Pictures motion picture written by Tom Schulman
Scenic Design: Scott Pask
Costume Design: Ann-Hould-WardLighting Design: Japhy Weideman
Sound Design: Matt Stine
Music: Jason Michael Webb
Associate Scenic Design: Orit Jacoby Carroll
Associate Costume Design: Christopher Vergara
Hair Design: J. Jared Janas
Production Stage Manager: Sarah Hall
Assistant Stage Manager: Melanie J. Lisby
Production Manager: Bethany Taylor
General Manager: John C. Hume
Casting: Telsey + Company, William Cantler, CSA, Karyn Casl, CSA
Press Representative: The Publicity Office
Directed by John Doyle
Dead Poets Society is presented by Special Arrangement with Adam Zotovich
Classic Stage Company36 East 13 Street
Tickets: 212-352-3101 or www.classicstage.org
Running time: 95 minutes, no intermission