Dead Poets Society Triumphs Off-Broadway

Dead Poets Society Triumphs Off-Broadway

Jason Sudeikis as Mr. Keating (©Joan Marcus)

I’m so grateful that my first experience seeing a show at Classic Stage Company was its stunning production of “Dead Poets Society.”

Adapted from his Oscar-winning screenplay from the 1989 film of the same name, Tom Schulman brings a modern audience back to a 1959 boarding school where a group of young men discover the power of poetry thanks to the teachings of their anti-establishment professor, Mr. Keating. During their junior year at Welton, these six students “wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life” (“Walden,” Henry David Thoreau) in their own way, forever changing themselves and each other. 

“Saturday Night Live” alum Jason Sudeikis deftly inhabited the role of Mr. Keating, famously portrayed by the late Robin Williams in the film version. Sudeikis beautifully balanced Keating’s teasing side with the more somber moments when his character needed to be a father figure to his struggling students. There is a delicate line not to be crossed when a teacher has this kind of intimate interaction with his pupils, but this make-shift family blended organically, allowing the audience to focus on the hardships that these prep school boys were facing.

The fact that you genuinely felt bad for these privileged kids was always something I admired about Schulman’s story. (I have seen the film version of “Dead Poets Society” more times than I can count.) Awkward rich teens are still awkward. Shy rich teens are still shy. It’s the social interactions in this show that are priceless, both for the characters and the audience. Cody Kostro (Charlie Dalton) and Yaron Lotan (Richard Cameron) brought dynamic range to their characters that drove the play toward its emotional final scenes. Bubba Weiler (Steven Meeks) made me smile and it was fun watching his character embrace his quirks. William Hochman (Knox Overstreet) gave an honest and earnest portrayal as a young man trying to understand and express newfound feelings of love. Thomas Mann (Neil Perry) handled his role with the kind of care Perry deserved—my heart broke watching Perry’s enthusiasm for knowledge and experience get repeatedly quashed by his father (Stephen Barker Turner, who is brilliant at being awful).

It was Zane Paris (Todd Anderson), though, who I found myself following during group scenes. This character was one of my favorites from the film and that loyalty has translated to the stage version thanks to Paris’s interpretation of this quiet guy. Between Paris’s evolving shift in body language and the script allowing Todd to find his voice, I was so moved by the sequence where the boys recite their original poems and again during the infamous “O Captain! My Captain!” moment.

To be honest, I actually teared up toward the beginning of the play when Keating asks Meeks to start reading the Robert Herrick poem, “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time.” As soon as I heard “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,” it clicked in my head that the play was real and I was overwhelmed with gratitude to be sitting in that theater in that moment. Though I know the whole story by heart, there is something so, so special about seeing people act out this powerful play in person.

Adding to the magical theatrical experience was Scott Pask’s set design. The stage area—surrounded on three sides by the audience—is empty, save for a huge wall of books that has a moving ladder and a chalkboard attached to it. There are no desks, no chairs. The boys and their teacher sit on stacks of books that are moved to and from the bookshelf. My favorite beat of the play was when some of these books get thrown—it’s an outward action that triggers a visceral reaction for the audience and only exists because it’s live and perfectly embodies the pain the characters are experiencing. Director John Doyle has long been on my list of people where if he is involved with a project, I want to see it—a moment like that is why.

“Dead Poets Society” has been extended a week and will run through Sunday, December 11, 2016. Whether you’ve seen the film or not, this is something that needs to be seen. Tickets can be purchased here.

Classic Stage Company is located at 136 E. 13th St., btw Third & Fourth aves.

(l-r) Zane Paris, Thomas Mann, Bubba Weiler, William Hochman, Yaron Lotan, Cody Kostro and Jason Sudeikis (©Joan Marcus)

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