Although I haven’t seen the movie Dead Poets Society for years, I immediately think of the late, great Robin Williams when I remember it. He gave one of his most engaging performances in the 1989 movie. I also remember the young Ethan Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard, who got their big breaks with the film. Lastly, I remember the lovely scenery of the prep school campus, beautifully shot by director Peter Weir.
Well, none of those elements is in the play Dead Poets Society, adapted by Tom Schulman from his screenplay, running Off Broadway at Classic Stage Company. But it does boast a winning, charming Jason Sudeikis of Saturday Night Live fame in Williams’ role. The other cast members, most of them young actors without long lists of credits, are also excellent. And director John Doyle, CSC’s new artistic director, works his usual minimalist magic.
As in his brilliant staging of The Color Purple, the audience has to use its imagination because there isn’t much of a set. Designer Scott Pask provides only tall book-lined shelves at the rear of the stage and a ladder. The actors who play students use the books to assemble makeshift chairs.
The set is appropriate since Sudeikis’ character, John Keating, aims to instill a love of literature in his high school students at the prestigious Welton Academy. A new teacher who was once a star pupil at Welton, he frequently quotes Walt Whitman. But he definitely doesn’t follow the prescribed curriculum of 1959 and has unusual teaching methods. “Seize the day, boys,” he says. “Make your lives extraordinary.” Keating wants his flannel-and-blazer-clad charges to be free thinkers. He also inspires them to resurrect the secret Dead Poets Society and to follow their passions.
Anyone who recalls the movie will know that things don’t end well. The stern headmaster, Mr. Nolan (David Garrison), finally shuts down the Society and Keating’s free-spirited ways. One of the film’s high points is the boys’ tribute to their fallen teacher with the words, “Oh Captain, my Captain!” It’s not as effective or as moving in the play, partly because there are only six young men in the cast. There are rumors that the play could move to Broadway. If so, maybe Schulman could add a few more high school characters to fill out the class for a bigger stage.
I hope that any future productions will retain the evocative lighting by Japhy Weideman and the sound design by Matt Stine, which help change the settings and mood throughout the play.
Sudeikis, a comic actor with a large following from SNL and movies like Horrible Bosses, is one of the reasons the production sold out. Surprisingly, he has never acted professionally in a play before. He may not be as charismatic as Robin Williams, but he looks quite comfortable on stage and is suitably genial and likable as Keating. I don’t know if any of his young costars will have breakout success like Hawke and Leonard, but they all show a lot of talent.
If you don’t already have tickets to the CSC production, you’ll probably have to hope it makes the leap to Broadway. It would play well in regional theaters too. In the meantime there’s always the DVD starring Williams – a feel-good holiday gift for teens and adults alike!