Back in 1989, I was the exact target audience for Dead Poets Society: fresh out of high school, drunk on art and beauty and still resentful of overbearing, conformist parents. (We were all MTV-weaned rebels.) So of course I adored Robin Williams cracking jokes with his preppy students, turning them on to Walt Whitman and the liberating joy of a barbaric yawp. Twenty-seven years later, am I still the perfect demo? Let’s just say Classic Stage Company’s earnest but flat-footed adaptation inspires thoughts of Netflix streaming more than leaping up on one’s desk to cry, “O Captain! My Captain!”
That stirring Spartacus-like moment at the end of the film is re-created here, but instead of wooden desks, the impassioned students mount stacks of books to show support for the unfairly dismissed John Keating (Jason Sudeikis). In the film, Maurice Jarre’s swelling music combined with low camera angles to make the scene instantly iconic. Here the effect is merely plucky and well-intentioned.
Director John Doyle’s big idea is to use books to undergird the physical world of the production, which unfolds in a unit set (by Scott Pask) that resembles a spacious library, complete with a rolling ladder. Actors are continually pulling hardback volumes off the shelves and stacking them on the floor, or tearing out pages, or flinging them against the wall in hormonal rages. Tom Schulman has competently translated his screenplay to the stage, with scenes smoothly flowing in and out. And Doyle has assembled a solid ensemble of keen young actors as the boys, including an affecting Zane Pais as Todd Anderson, the painfully shy, budding versifier.
Sudeikis, best known as a handsome funnyman on Saturday Night Live from 2005 to '13, has a twinkling, easygoing air, and it’s clear that several improvised jokes made their way from rehearsal into the script, but he’s far too flip and contemporary to believe as a poetry-loving pedant circa 1959—even a free-thinking, humorous one. Still, he has oodles of charm and physical grace; he’d make a fine comedy teacher.
Classic Stage Company (Off Broadway). By Tom Schulman. Directed by John Doyle. With Jason Sudeikis, Francesca Carpanini, David Garrison, William Hochman, Cody Kostro, Yaron Lotan, Thomas Mann, Zane Pais, Stephen Barker Turner and Bubba Weiler. Running time: 1hr 35mins. No intermission. Through Dec 11. Click here for full ticket and venue information.
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