Opening Nights: The History Boys and The Seafarer

PICK: The History BoysArtsWest, 4711 California Ave. S.W., 938-0339, www.artswest.org. $10–$32. 7:30 p.m. Wed.–Sat., 3 p.m. Sun. Ends March 28.To please the university examiners or to be true to ourselves (and to history), that is the question in Alan Bennett's acclaimed 2004 play, getting its Seattle debut at ArtsWest.It's the '80s, as three dedicated educators employ contrasting strategies to get their students from the working-class pond of Sheffield, England, into elite institutions. Hector (John Wray) is a tweedy, bow-tie-sporting practitioner of the humanities as conceived by the ancients: men and boys engaged in the passing along of more than knowledge. Irwin (Jon Lutyens) is the young one brought in to raise the school's success rate. He teaches history as an exercise in manipulating facts into the most uniquely interesting story. Dorothy, played with striking authenticity by 40-year teaching veteran Dorothy Lintott, umps the skirmishes and brings respect for facts back. Dennis Kleinsmith is the technocrat headmaster, quite the perfect grumpus who concerns himself solely with score improvements and the avoidance of lawsuits.The cast of boys tease, simper, act out, doze off, provoke, resent, and celebrate with engaging realism, nailing the fluctuations of adolescent energy from hyper to lethargic. As Posner, the gay Jewish boy, Justin Huertas ably saunters the line between caricature and character. The Yorkshire accents take a bit of concentration to decipher at times, but nearly everyone pulls them off with confidence. As directed by Christopher Zinovitch, this production capitalizes on the intimate venue to bring us close to—as though right up to the keyhole of—the classroom. Fake wood-laminate furniture and spanking new encyclopedias hit a good decor note for the rank-climbing ambitions of the school.So winsome are the characters, so provocative are the debates, so witty is the repartee, that we suspend—as if in a fairy tale about a different sort of land—judgment of sexual molestation. "Oh yeah, and he touched that kid" drifts by as an afterthought.Although nothing overtly occult happens, there's a feeling of magical enchantment here, as a schoolboy sings, an old teacher mentors a younger one, a young "success story" looks back at the mythical nest he flew from, spotlit in a dark classroom. "When someone dies in school, you remember it all your life." Spoken by one boy in flashback about a specific death, these words echo with wider meaning. In one way or another we all die in school...this iteration of The History Boys suggests we are also born there. MARGARET FRIEDMANThe SeafarerSeattle Repertory Theater, Seattle Center, 443-2222, www.seattlerep.org. $15–$59. 7:30 p.m. Tues.–Sun., 2 p.m. Sat.–Sun. Ends March 28.What happens when brogues go rogue? Drop in on Seattle Rep's otherwise sterling production of The Seafarer and ask yourself how long any self-respecting true sod of the Emerald Isle would sit for these mutilated dialects before heading out for a pint and returning soused by curtain call with pitchforks and torches.Certainly there's nothing wrong with playwright Conor McPherson's alternately delightful and depressing text, which finds a pair of aging siblings settling in for a memorable Christmas. Oh, sure, the brothers Harkin are facing their share of troubles: Richard (Sean G. Griffin) is now sightless after a besotted binge had him rummaging around trash bins in the wee hours. Younger brother Sharky (Hans Altwies) is dragging himself toward sobriety after concluding that he's out of alternatives. His reputation as a mean drunk has left him unemployable among the townsfolk; and strolling the streets the other day, he watched as his wife's new beau Nicky (Shawn Telford) drove by—in Sharky's car.McPherson, himself a recovering alcoholic, knows these men and their plights only too well. They repeatedly demonstrate an indomitable spirit, and the only fellow who keeps them down is the one staring back in the mirror. Best friend Ivan Curry (Russell Hodgkinson) is afraid even to venture home, since his missus has long ago lost patience with his lust for liquor. Henpecked, and half-blind himself without the glasses he's misplaced during a night of sleeping on the floor ("Not the floor," he retorts indignantly. "The rug!"), Ivan is the most sympathetic of the lot. None of these men are evil; it's their addiction that keeps them just beyond salvation. Or so it seems until Christmas Eve, when into their midst arrives Mephistopheles himself (Frank Corrado), here with Sharky's nemesis Nicky to play a friendly game of cards—with one fellow's immortal soul as the grand prize.In grand Irish tradition, McPherson spins a yarn so well that you find yourself paying rapt attention even when nothing much is happening. There's a lot of ranting about money and women, bragging about feats of nerve and physical prowess, and a fierce pride in consuming quantities of booze that could only be called heroic. The play was a critical hit on Broadway in 2007, but the Rep's version is undone by a failure to make or keep the show Irish. Several cast members suffer from drifting dialect, and, truth be told, three of the five never quite get there. It may be better to have loved and lost than not at all, but if the play's goal is to take the audience to a place outside Dublin, don't hire actors who sound like they're from Dubuque.Director Wilson Milam, a Puget Sound native who has staged work in London, Dublin, New York, and Chicago, should know better. A play where setting is everything—where buying into the fairytale is so predicated on whether you believe the players' relationships to one another—is a house of cards that needs every single piece to fit snugly in order to work. Having one actor (the sublime Griffin) hit every note like an opera star, with all the other cast members not even completely sure what the song is supposed to sound like, is the kiss of death. Listen: If you can't find people who can do the job, don't do the play. Therein lies the difference between art and arts and crafts.Technically the show is on much firmer footing. Eugene Lee's cutaway split-level house takes the idea of ramshackle to Olympian heights. Deb Trout puts a decidedly Irish spin on clothing that these men find most useful—that is to say, you can sleep in them and wear them out into the dreary Irish winter, and they'll take the occasional spill in the gutter and odd puking as well. Together Lee and Trout provide a certain pungent verisimilitude, and Matt Starritt's sound design is another bright spot. Ultimately, though, it's the same as dressing up Frankenstein's bride: All the pieces come from different places, and any illusion of something authentic is lost. KEVIN PHINNEYstage@seattleweekly.com

 
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