What is going on at the Artists Repertory Theatre lately? The bar has been incrementally dropping all season (a recent, decent production of Streetcar notwithstanding), and their current limp production of The History Boys does nothing to counter the downward tendency.
Alan Bennett's multiple Tony Award-winning script focuses on a group of bright secondary students who are preparing to sit for their Oxbridge entrance exams, which will determine if they get to attend Oxford or Cambridge. They are guided in their studies by Hector (Michael Kevin), a benignly lecherous, poetry-spouting teacher whose occasional wandering hands (read: ball grabs) are considered by everyone involved to be no more than harmless tributes.
Enter Irwin (played by an appropriately uptight Chris Harder), a young teacher hired to coach the boys for their exams, whose teaching methods upset the relationship between Hector and the students: Irwin introduces the idea that truth is malleable, and that beauty and passion might be a little too obvious to be interesting. Throw in a pederasty scandal, and the sheer cruel arrogance of the young, and it makes for an engaging script. It this case, however, it does not make for a particularly engaging production.
Frenetic set and sound design overwhelm the actors: Punk and new age blare between scenes and school bells jarringly announce the end of every scene. Jeff Seats' set design in particular is bafflingly bad, given the good work he's done at Artists Rep and elsewhere in the past. Benches made of stacked books and covered in ivy? My high school production of Guys and Dolls was designed more thoughtfully than this.
There's just something goofy about this show, something cartoonish and overplayed. This is more the fault of the direction than the acting—the ensemble here ranges from competent to quite good (of particular note, the performance of Tyler Caffall, who's been plugging away at small roles for a few years now and does great work here as Scripps, the boy who narrates much of the show.) If the pack of boys at times more closely resembles the cartoon puppies from 101 Dalmatians than the boundary-pushing, hormonal teens they're meant to be, the fault lies less with the actors than with a director who couldn't seem to resist overblowing the whole affair.