It's not often I can say this -- and, in truth, in theater it isn't always necessary -- but one of the nicest things about Alan Bennett's multi-award-winning comedy/drama The History Boys is getting to see a play that's smarter than me.
As entertainment increasingly becomes something created for the largest available audience, it's surely no secret that shaving off several I.Q. points is part of that process. But not with History Boys. In fact, not only does the script revel in its intelligence, but the whole point of History Boys is the transmission of knowledge.
Eight young men in the north of England, having graduated high school with flying colors, are now trying to gain admission to either Oxford or Cambridge. To that end the headmaster sets up an accelerated summer tutoring session, its sole purpose to pound as much knowledge into their heads as is possible before they take the entrance exams.
Running the classes are Hector and Irwin, teachers living at opposite ends of educational thought. Hector, a frumpy, rumpled older man, believes knowledge exists purely for its own sake -- the "glory" of knowing is enough to justify the process. The much younger Irwin is a slick and sleek pragmatist: The knowledge the boys acquire is only useful if it can be stripped down to sound bites and used in the boys' exams. Irwin doesn't believe that the boys' essays need to be true, just interesting and provocative.
Bennett sets the play in the early '80s, so it's almost impossible not to see Irwin and his approach as Mrs. Thatcher and the amoral movement she ushered in. Hector, meanwhile, is the "merry olde England" of yore, under siege by the unforgiving winds of modernity.
But Bennett's too smart for something that simple. Irwin's razzle-dazzle is cover for a conventional hack, and Hector's own secret (that he likes to grope his older students) keeps us from painting him in the golden glow of nostalgia.
And the extra added feature of History Boys is the enormous heart Bennett gives the play. There isn't a character on stage who isn't an aching bundle of need, and each of their emotional journeys is what makes the evening so powerful.
I'm not sure why, but the show makes its area premiere at Little Lake Theatre. Something's very odd in the theatrical world when a community theater in North Strabane is presenting a decidedly grown-up show like this while the Pittsburgh Public Theater is producing early Neil Simon ... or did I wake up in an alternate universe?
Well, whatever. Little Lake has the rights, and the right, to do this show first and, for the most part, the production does well by Bennett.
I can't imagine the amount of sleep lost by director Art DeConciliis; between the size of the cast, the density of the language, the "Britishness" of the script and the storyline set in academia, this must have been a bitch of a show to mount. I'm not sure how much the play's larger issues are illuminated, but DeConciliis' focus on the play's humor is not without its own rewards. I saw it opening night and, understandably with a play this huge, this hard-working cast couldn't be said to be all that comfortable yet. But that's a condition I feel sure will remedy itself as the production matures.
The History Boys continues through July 19. Little Lake Theatre, 500 Lakeside Dr. South (off Route 19), Canonsburg. 724-745-6300 or www.littlelake.org