By Jon L Jensen
You’d be hard-pressed to find an American who does not recall seeing Dead Poets Society for the first time.
The inspiring and heart-breaking film burned an impression into the minds of anyone who was ever shown the film in high school English class. Say the phrases “Suck out all the marrow of life,” “Carpe diem,” or “Oh, Captain, My Captain,” and most will think not of Thoreau, Latin class or Walt Whitman, but of the 1989 movie starring Robin Williams.
A new play version of Dead Poets Society at the Classic Stage Company (CSC) seeks to reinterpret the classic for theatergoers, directed by Tony Award-winning John Doyle and adapted by Tom Schulman, who won an Academy Award for his screenplay of the film. Unfortunately, the stage version unfortunately suffers by comparison.
The production stars Jason Sudeikis as the rule-breaking teacher, John Keating. Sudeikis, whose film credits include Hall Pass and Horrible Bosses 1&2, does an admirable job. He avoids impersonating Robin Williams’ indelible performance. He is believable as a Rhodes scholar who has chosen to return to his rigid alma mater to inspire a new group of boys to rebel against the constraints of Cold War America. But what Sudeikis lacks is the charisma and vulnerability that make his character’s story arc pack a punch.
Most of the fault in the production lies not with the Sudeikis or the six actors cast to play Keating’s students, but with the script and its direction.
For the play, which runs about 100 minutes without intermission, Schulman cut major chunks from his screenplay. The setting of the formidable preparatory school is reduced to a library that serves as classroom, auditorium, cafeteria, dormitory and cave. A staff of dozens is reduced to one character, the head master (played masterfully by David Garrison). A student body of hundreds is reduced to six boys.
Paring down is familiar ground for director Doyle, whose revivals of The Color Purple, Sweeney Todd, and Company, each excelled under his minimalist hand. Regrettably, the approach does not work for Dead Poets Society. The last third of the play is jumbled and confusing. Consequently the tragic climax of the story feels unmotivated and slightly empty.
Like the film, the main role is not Keating’s, but by the six boys who form the Dead Poets Society under his inspiration. The actors cast in the roles often read less like 1950s teenagers and more like 20-something millennials.
Two performances excel above the rest. William Hochman, who plays the hormonal Knox Overstreet, brims with adolescent verve as he pursues his love for a local girl. Likewise, Cody Costro stands out as Charlie Dalton, whose humor, passion and risk-taking bring the boys’ secret society under the administration’s scrutiny.
The story’s climax depends, however, on two other students: the shy Todd Anderson (played by Zane Pais) and Neil Perry (played by Thomas Mann), who disobeys his oppressive father to pursue acting. The pair has little material to work with in Schulman’s script. Key scenes between the boys in the screenplay were cut. The pressure put on them to succeed by parents and the oppressive school culture is almost absent.
The movie version ends triumphantly with a simple act of defiance. Todd musters the courage to stand atop his desk, followed by the others. But the desks in the stage production are just a knee-high pile of books. The gesture requires little effort and leaves little impression in the audience except a desire to watch the film again.
Dead Poets Society
Classic Stage Company
136 East 13th Street, NYC
Through December 18
Jon L Jensen is a poet and educator. His forthcoming novel-in-verse attempts to give his native Wyoming an epic makeover.