It’s not every day that a play seems to call for a recommended reading list or prompts flashbacks to writing essays for high school English class. But if the idea of such things grabs you, you’ll feel right at home at the Classic Stage Theater’s production of Dead Poets Society, even if the play feels like a SparkNotes version of the 1989 movie on which it’s based.
The production, directed by John Doyle, hits the same beats as the film version of Dead Poets (written by Tom Schulman, who adapted his screenplay for the stage incarnation). The setting is Welton Academy, a stodgy, all-boys preparatory school in 1959 New England, where the four core values are “Tradition,” “Honor,” “Discipline,” and “Excellence” — conformity isn’t among them, but it might as well be. New student Todd Anderson (Zane Pais, doing fine work in what was Ethan Hawke’s film role) befriends a quintet of other classmates, and the lot of them encounter the school’s new English teacher: John Keating, a Welton graduate himself with a much more free-thinking way of teaching. (That intro to their textbooks that uses a grading system for poetry? Rip it out!) He tells the young men to call him “O Captain, My Captain,” from the Walt Whitman poem, and urges them to “seize the day,” looking beyond the plans that adults plot out for them in order to take control of their own destinies.
Played by Robin Williams in the film, Mr. Keating is assayed here by Jason Sudeikis, who doesn’t deliver the same whimsy that Williams brought to the role but does manage to bring a confident charm all his own. He’s the teacher you loved the most at school, the one who taught you things that seemed to truly matter and who cared about more than just your grades, and Sudeikis plays the humor of the character as deftly as he does the more thoughtful, emotional moments.
When the boys discover that Mr. Keating was part of the secret society of the play’s title during his time at school, they decide to revive it themselves — and the carpe diem, sucking-the-marrow-out-of-life philosophy it espouses leads to clashes with authority figures both inside the school (David Garrison is Welton’s no-nonsense headmaster) and outside, such as when fellow student Neil Perry (Thomas Mann), who yearns to be an actor, finds those dreams shot down by his father (Stephen Barker Turner).
Dead Poets Society follows the same path as its cinematic predecessor, perhaps too faithfully, and unfortunately doesn’t find the same level of poignancy, even when events turn tragic for one of the students and the fallout rains down on their favorite teacher. The feelings of learning, finding young love, and yearning to forge your own path in the world are all there — as is the film’s final, Whitman-quoting moment — but unfortunately it all pales in comparison to its source material. B