Jason Sudeikis has enough mischief in his eyes to make John Keating a credible non-conformist hero in Dead Poets Society. You’ve heard of this secret club of pubescent prep-school pishers, who meet in a cave near “the finest preparatory school in the United States,” according to its headmaster. That was the club and this the fictional setting of the 1989 film starring an atypically sedate Robin Williams as Keating, the prodigal alumnus who has returned to snooty Welton to inflict poetry on lads whose focus is elsewhere.
Keating, whose mantra is “carpe diem” and whose deity is Walt Whitman, fits squarely (so to speak) in the tradition of Miss Jean Brodie and Mr. Chips, Mr. Holland and Mr. Kotter and all the other convention-busting expanders of young minds in the apparently insatiable maw of teacher-centered pop mythology. Now comes Sudeikis — known for his Joe Biden on Saturday Night Live and Horrible Bosses among other comedic high jinks — to fill Keating’s brogues. And he’s just fine.
Adapted for the stage by Tom Schulman from his Oscar-winning screenplay, Dead Poets Society follows this week’s stage adaptation of another ’80s film, Terms Of Endearment, both of which deal with the complicated ties binding overbearing parents and their overwrought spawn, and both of which end with an untimely death. Both adaptations also suffer from compression that turns more expansive screenplays into stage shorthand best suited to folks familiar with the films.
This is especially true of Dead Poets Society, even though it’s the better show. No leafy New England greenery, pseudo-Gothic architecture, cramped dorm rooms, spooky cave or any of the other atmospherics provided in Peter Weir’s film. At the Classic Stage Company’s tiny East Village theater, the audience faces a wall of books suggesting a well-appointed library (designed by the estimable Scott Pask) for the duration of the play’s 90 uninterrupted minutes.
All the film’s touchstones are here: The opening, in which the boys recite the “four pillars” of the school, their rowdy play as Keating enters the classroom whistling the “Ode To Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth (pretty good whistler, Sudeikis is), and his heartfelt, if unlikely, success at instantaneously transforming them from arrogant, privileged, snotty brats into verse-spouting adventurers ready to epater any available bourgeoisie. Norman Lloyd’s scary-as-hell wooden paddle from the film is downgraded to the leather belt of David Garrison, playing the Headmaster, one of the story’s two embodiments of mustache-twirling evil. The other is Stephen Barker Turner as Mr. Perry, tightly wound father of Neil, the thoughtful boy (played in the film by Robert Sean Leonard and here by the effective Thomas Mann) who discovers Shakespeare.
Dead Poets Society is an odd choice for director John Doyle in his first season as CSC’s artistic head. He’s not new to the company; his revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Passion was exquisite; on Broadway he is responsible for both the brilliant Tony-winning revival of The Color Purple and the flawed but riveting musical The Visit. By comparison, Dead Poets Society seems small beer, coasting. While there are some pleasures to be had in Sudeikis’ tweedy performance, they’re offset by the blandness of the others and some genuine weirdnesses in the script.
At one point, for example, one of the boys blurts, in response to the “carpe diem” theme, “carpe vagina.” As this does not exist in the film, I took it to be Schulman’s sly social commentary on a recently uncovered declaration by our President-elect; a CSC spokesman says this is not so. And absent any off-campus settings, the play’s climax makes no sense at all. (One change for the better: Mr. Perry’s motivation for destroying his son’s soul is fleshed out with a line admonishing Neil not to forget his place on a lower social stratum than his trust fund mates.)
Truth to tell, however, the virtue of the film, besides Williams’ lovely performance, is seeing Leonard, Ethan Hawke and Josh Charles giving their youthful all to a heaping helping of hokum. The stage version has Sudeikis displaying his own charms, small-scale though they are. But no matter how many dead poets’ names are dragged in to class up the act, hokum is still hokum.