Romantics will find much to embrace in writer Thomas Schulman’s stage adaptation of the 1989 film he wrote, “Dead Poets Society,” receiving its world premiere production at Off Broadway’s Classic Stage Company. Director John Doyle’s clever, simple-truths staging beguiles audiences much in the same way English teacher John Keating, portrayed here by Jason Sudeikis in a remarkable performance, leaves a mark on his impressionistic students with his motto of “Carpe diem!” Problem is, what we’re seeing is the same script, still with its inspirational intentions but also with its flaws of underwritten characters, villainous antagonists and easy sentimentality.
But just as many were moved by the Peter Weir film and the dazzling performance of Robin Williams as the unconventional instructor at a boys prep school in the 1950s, many will be touched by this production, too. Audiences’ inherent affection for the property – matched with the efficient single-set staging and the heart-tugs of the story – will no doubt make it a popular title at theaters around the country.
Comparisons are inevitable with the beloved film, which helped launch the careers of Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard and Josh Charles, and earned Schulman an Oscar and Williams an acting nomination.
In the role of Keating, Sudeikis is terrific, with his own comic rhythms, easygoing naturalism and subversive charm that’s in a class by itself. His sly, low-key, off-syllabus approach works for the audience as well as the students, whom he gradually turns from pressured overachievers to independent thinkers and free-spirits, encouraging them to release their inner poet, artist, lover and rebel in an era that rewards those who follow the rules.
Doyle certainly makes it easy to enter that conformist world, with the clean-cut, blazer-wearing students politely handing out programs as the audience enters, and headmaster Nolan (David Garrison, splendid in both dark and lighter moments) offering a welcome address explaining the pillars of pricey Welton Academy (“Tradition! Honor! Discipline! Excellence!”).
Against Scott Pask’s imposing, wood-lined set of towering bookshelves, Keating offers a window of imagination with a curriculum that favors life-affirming poets like Whitman, Frost and Thoreau. As in the movie, his unorthodox teaching methods include tearing out a restrictive-thinking introduction in their poetry books, discovering their own literal walk in life, and standing on their desks – stacks of books here substituting for classroom furniture – in order to find new perspectives and the poetry in their own lives.
They do – well, almost all of them – in ways that can’t help but elicit a goosebump or a tear, even as it leads to tragedy.
But despite the colorful personalities this ensemble of young performers bring to their roles, the characters are fundamentally written as adjectives: painfully shy Todd Anderson (Zane Pais), playful Charlie Dalton (Cody Kostro, charismatic); brilliant-sensitive Neil Perry (Thomas Mann), romantic Knox Overstreet (William Hochman), by-the-book Richard Cameron (Yaron Lotan), and nerd Steven Meeks (Bubba Weiler), an especially slight character.
Furthering the single-note depictions is Neil’s controlling, manipulating father, played fanatically by Stephen Barker Turner. Francesca Carpanini has a sweeter time with it as Knox’s super-wooed girlfriend.
Schulman doesn’t take the opportunity to expand his screenplay, deepen the characters, or explore the complexities and consequences of his story and themes. Fans of the film’s sentiments might be satisfied, but for others the tragedy is that the writer didn’t seize the play.