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The History Boys

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What's past is prologue: (from left) Arya Shahi, Bernard Cuffling (standing), Dave Droxler, Sam Redford (standing), Ethan Saks and John Wascavage in PICT's The History Boys. - PHOTO COURTESY OF GIANNI DOWNS.
  • Photo courtesy of Gianni Downs.
  • What's past is prologue: (from left) Arya Shahi, Bernard Cuffling (standing), Dave Droxler, Sam Redford (standing), Ethan Saks and John Wascavage in PICT's The History Boys.

I've spent the past week following these Obamacare Astroturf Town Brawls in which extremely ill-informed people stand up at community centers to shriek a bit and then break down in tears; it's a spectacle that's both odd and essentially American: What we feel has somehow become far more important than what we think.

So it was with considerable relief that I settled into my chair at the Stephen Foster Memorial to watch Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre's production of The History Boys.

Whatever else this play is, and it's a lot, History Boys is largely about brains: having them, filling them, honing them and hiding behind them. There are few pleasures greater than listening as playwright Alan Bennett spins out pages and pages of terrifically clever, satisfyingly funny and, on occasion, insightful dialogue.

Eight very bright male students in England are all trying to get into either Oxford or Cambridge. So the headmaster has called for a summer program of overachieving study with both the regular teacher, Hector, and one hired specifically for the program, Irwin.

Hector represents the "old school" type of schooling -- knowledge for its own sake -- while Irwin (certainly Bennett's satire on the Thatcherite era) is a flashy, ultimately empty man firmly convinced that presentation beats truth and deliberately contradictory positions beat everything. In Hector's world, knowing art is a great thing; in Irwin's, knowing about art is better.

Bennett also throws in a bunch of stuff about love, need, sex, trust and truth. Oddly, one of the things which keeps this highly entertaining play from being a great one is Bennett's wide canvas; there's so much going on that he never gives himself the time or space to fully develop his ideas.

The PICT production, directed by Andrew S. Paul, remains lucid and measured throughout ... which, given the glorious jumble Bennett provides, is no small feat. I especially enjoyed the very real sense of ensemble presented by the actors playing the students, including Dave Droxler, Jarid Faubel and Corey O'Connor.

Sam Redford is a nicely conflicted Irwin, and Martin Giles is a funny, philistine headmaster. Bernard Cuffling has no problem making real Hector's great enthusiasms, but I do have to say that his relentless perkiness robs the character of gravitas and subtext.

But, ultimately, I'm not sure any of my caveats matter. History Boys may not be everything you'd like it to be, but what it is is pretty amazing.

 

The History Boys continues through Aug. 22. Stephen Foster Memorial Theatre, Forbes Avenue at Bigelow Boulevard, Oakland. 412-394-3353 or www.picttheatre.org

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