Hearing the phrase “Carpe diem” is sure to bring some misty-eyed memories to audience members at Dead Poet’s Society. The new play at Classic Stage Company, is adapted by Tom Schulman from his own Oscar-winning script of the 1989 movie, a film remembered fondly by countless artistic souls. But when stripped of cinematic close-ups and intimate camera work to heighten the experience of this simple and bittersweet story, the experience is lessened rather than heightened.
Directed by John Doyle, the master of the stripped-down production, the adventures of an idealistic, nonconforming teacher and his wide-eyed young students is performed on a single set (designed by Scott Pask), with almost no props other than studious stacks of books. Doyle is known for his technique of requiring actors play their own instruments, a strategy that often offers new insight into the characters of musicals, but without it employed here, the characters rarely register with real emotion.
“Saturday Night Live” star Jason Sudeikis steps into the role of John Keating, the independent-minded teacher at an uptight boys’ school in New England. Sudeikis possesses an affable charm and pleasant speaking voice that aids in the teacher’s influence on the boys, inspiring them to tear pages out of their textbooks and stand on top of their desks to seek new perspectives, but Keats never registers as an actual person rather than an ideal of The Teacher Who Changed My Life.
As Keating’s students, the group of young actors put forth admirable effort in underwritten roles: the stuttering Zane Pais, the sensitive Thomas Mann, the comedic Cody Kostro, the bookish Bubba Weiler, the romantic William Hochman and the teachers’ pet Yaron Lotan. Francesca Carpanini plays the one, extremely underwritten, female part.
As the narrow-minded adults who strive to keep teenagers in familiar and strictly drawn lines, David Garrison and Stephen Barker Turner embody the headmaster who teaches poetry as if it were science and the father who refuses to permit his son to act onstage for fear it derail his plans for medical school. But neither character is given motivation for their uncompromising stances; instead, they are merely the villains in a sentimental story.
The characters simultaneously feel underdeveloped and all too familiar, as does the storyline: After tragedy befalls a student, the higher-ups look for a scapegoat, and the unapologetically rebellious Keating serves that purpose nicely.
In revisiting an old script, Schulman had the opportunity to explore new plot threads or different characteristics, but he appeared to stick to his previously successful material. Even those who aren’t familiar with the movie can probably predict the ending, which, while moving, does not examine the consequences or deepen the impact of their actions. It’s too bad Schulman didn’t stand on a desk while looking at his own script.