Tightened for the theater, the Classic Stage Company production of “Dead Poets Society,” ably directed by John Doyle and written by Tom Schulman based on the movie that Schulman also wrote, is both often funny and moving in its salute to developing an independent mind and matching behavior.
As I watched the excellent drama of prep school students admiring a teacher inspiring them to think out of the box, my thoughts harked back fondly to a political professor I had at Rutgers University. My Professor George was also a character.
At times he would leap upon onto a desk when lecturing. He mocked the school song’s lyrics (since revised), which included “My father sent me to old Rutgers, and resolved that I should be a man.” Professor George would go around the room, jocularly pointing fingers at different students, and asking “Did your father send you?”
Professor George, speaking of Mormons being able to have more than one wife, memorably intoned, “To offset the immorality of the Mormons, the United States acquired the Virgin Islands.” George also ran for Congress in the district. He lost.
John Keating, the inspirational poetry teacher at the Welton Academy in New England in 1959, is played by Jason Sudeikis of television fame. He does a convincing job in the role played by Robin Williams in the film. (But let’s get the film out of our minds and evaluate the stage production on its own terms.) Sudeikis combines the charm that can be an allure to his students with the passion of his convictions when teaching poetry. He is excellent at communicating his love for poetry while having disdain for the conventional ways in which it is taught. He is good at working up his students with the various gimmicks up his sleeve, and also simultaneously pleasing an audience. In short, Sudeikis is very believable and enjoyable.
Of course, such teaching is bound to run into trouble in a conventional school. The students, taken with the theme of individuality, form their non-conformist Dead Poets Society, which when surfacing infuriates the head of the school, who wants to oust Keating and pressures the boys to sign a demand for his being fired. This leads to a dramatic moment when at risk of expulsion, the boys stand up in defense of the teacher they have come to admire.
Other situations also surface. One of the students who wants to act is crushed by his authoritarian father’s forbidding him to be in a school play, a command that has dire consequences. One of the lads finally gets up the courage to read a poem to a girl student he admires. In the confines of a small stage a variety of story threads come to life, sometimes amusingly, sometimes ultra dramatically. The entire cast is excellent, and Doyle, who has proved himself a master of directing on a small scale, furthers that reputation here. At the Classic Stage Compnny, 136 East 13th Street. Phone: 212-352-3101. Reviewed November 18, 2016