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Dead Poets Society

dead poet society

Written by: Tom Schulman

Directed and adapted by: John Doyle


By Rachel Goddard


Almost thirty years since Dead Poets Society inspired us to seize the day on the silver screen, director John Doyle (The Color Purple) takes Tom Schulman’s Academy Award winning script to the stage. Presented by Classic Stage Company, Dead Poets Society features the film star and Saturday Night Live alum, Jason Sudeikis as the iconic role of John Keating, the audacious school teacher originated by the legendary Robin Williams. The 1989 film held a certain amount of critical acclaim making the transition to the theater an overdue yet intimidating undertaking. With the film script absurdly similar to the new stage script, one might wonder why a play adaptation was even necessary. However, since the film was conceived to have an emphasis on the power of language, what better medium to tell this story than theatre?  


L to R - Zane Pais, Thomas Mann, Bubba Weiler, William Hochman, Yaron Lotan, Cody Kostro, Jason Sudeikis. Photo by Joan Marcus


The fourth wall is deliberately torn down before the first act even begins. The thrust stage is set depicting an old classroom with a large wall full of textbooks and a dusty blackboard set in front of it. The cast members come out to mingle out of character and pass out the playbills just minutes before the play begins, eliminating a palpable transition into the world of the play. A clear invitation for the audience to enter into the classroom ensues when the opening monologue (and several moments throughout) are delivered directly to the audience. The clever choice to break down the separation between play and audience heightened the power of words spoken aloud and subsequently amplified the principles of this beloved story.


Opening with an almost eerie song of worship to the 1950s all-boys preparatory school that sets the story, the boys sing proudly; unaware that there is more to life than the four pillars that they are supposed to live by: “tradition, honor, discipline and excellence.” Set designer Scott Pask had the task of consolidating the limitless spaces possible for film into the traditional, stationary set of one act play. His design captured the crux of the world these boys live in with the versatility to chase through the many scenes covered in the film. Stacks of books become chairs, and the sliding library ladders take us from scene to scene.


Doyle created many simple yet poignant stage pictures with his blocking which made for many visually interested moments. His approach was very straight-laced and stayed true to the beloved film which was certainly safe but ultimately sacrificed the many interpretive routes possible but not taken in the staged version. Generally, it was more of abridgment of the film with the famous scenes included and nothing else added. The play was engaging but could not stand independently from the film. The aim of the direction and design all served to illuminate the script, and exult the text as the most important creative aspect of the play, as was in the film. Fortunately, the text is riddled with witty and bold dialogue that justifies the obvious and predictable approach taken by the direction and other design elements. Unfortunately, it depended largely on an audience who would say, “I just want to see the film live. Spare me the theatricality and imagination.”  


The play then introduced John Keating as the new and unconventional “cool” teacher. When the boys discover that in high school, Mr. Keating was in a club called the Dead Poets Society that met in a cave to read and be inspired by poetry they then reinstate the society. We then follow the profound effects of their desire to “Carpe Diem” and to follow vehemently after their teacher’s lead. The play progressed rather rapidly but still allowed the cast members heartfelt moments and full character arcs. However, the pace of the play made the ending come to an awkwardly abrupt halt after some of the previous dramatic moments were plowed through rather dryly. This was a smart choice in part because it served to avoid an overly mawkish mood that the story could’ve easily fallen into. But this ended up taking away from the gravity of the story, making the tragic ending hit a little too lightly. 

Pictured Jason Sudeikis. Photo by Joan Marcus

Jason Sudeikis headed the cast as what will unavoidably be called “the Robin Williams character”. Considering the comparisons that would be made between his performance and Robin Williams’, Sudeikis took a very different approach in his style and interpretation of the role. Arguably, his performance was the largest difference between the film and the play. Sudeikis brought an enormous amount of sincerity but much less intensity and exuberance than seen in Robin Williams’ famed style of acting. Sudeikis had a sophistication that suited well with his own positive and likable energy. Anyone would come off lackluster compared to Robin Williams, but Sudeikis took a fresh enough perspective that comparing him to Robin Williams was almost unnecessary. His background in improv was apparent when engaging with audience and his fellow cast-mates which garnished plenty of laughs yet showcased his unaffectedness and believability.


David Garrison (A Day in Hollywood / A Night in the Ukraine) played the headmaster Mr. Nolan, the defender of the constraining environment that the boys learn to break free from. Garrison’s distinguished and antagonistic performance was watertight and gave us the subtle villain we needed. Oher stand out performances were given by Cody Kostro as the lovable rebel, Charlie Dalton and Thomas Mann (Project X) as the fiery-souled Neil Perry. Completing the generally strong cast were the perfectly awkward and endearing school-boys, William Hochman as Knox Overstreet, Yaron Lotan as Richard Cameron, Zane Pais as Todd Anderson, and Bubba Weiler as Steven Meeks.


Jason Sudeikis (on ladder) Photo by Joan Marcus


If you loved the film, you’ll love this live solute to it in the intimate off-Broadway experience. However, you might be less than pleased if you were hoping for a bold, new interpretation. The irony of a story that emphasizes finding your own voice in a production that almost completely replicates the original is evident. However, the principles of rejecting conformity and defying the blind submission to tradition are timeless and painfully necessary in our world today where causes turn into uneducated bandwagons and politics has turned into group mentalities instead of individuals’ thoughts. The play, and the film alike, although not totally original in concept, still cleverly exploits the human propensity to go with the flow and emphasizes the need to reject that for the purpose of becoming a free-thinker. The script still shouts these themes even if the production itself didn’t quite listen. The relevance is still as poignant as it was thirty years ago and the play did give us the genuine and engaging foundation. As Mr. Keating tells the students, “Either you will succumb to the will of hoi polloi -and your precious fruit will die on the vine -or you will triumph as individuals.”


Classic Stage Company

For further information on Classic Stage Company, call (212) 352-3101, visit the theatre in person at 136 East 13th Street, or go to

Tickets Available until December 18, 2016.