Anticipation was keen for this recast Los Angeles rendition of Alan Bennett's Tony- and Olivier-winning London and Broadway hit, which was originally staged by Nicholas Hytner for the National Theatre of Great Britain, then imported to New York. Though there are imperfections in director Paul Miller's production, which reportedly follows Hytner's original conceptions closely, the eccentric charm and intellectual riches of this disarming comic drama make for a heady and entertaining time, highlighted by Dakin Matthews' masterful performance as an impassioned and beloved teacher with problematic behavioral traits. Set in a high school in a northern England industrial town in the 1980s, the play charts the experiences of eight students preparing for the entrance exams that could secure admittance to Cambridge or Oxford, and three teachers attempting to guide them toward college acceptance. The elderly yet energetic Hector (Matthews) suggests that poetry and pop culture, rather than dry facts, will impress the examiners; traditionalist Mrs. Lintott (Charlotte Cornwell) favors fastidiously recorded history; new instructor Irwin (Peter Paige), brought in by the headmaster (H. Richard Greene) to shake things up, advocates the radical approach of challenging common historical perceptions. Bennett fashions a tapestry more than a narrative — including florid literary passages, literate dialogue, sundry subplots, intriguing musings on the purposes of education, the teacher-student bond, sexual awakening, and more. It's a rich blend, providing food for thought and the opportunity for scintillating characterizations. Besides Matthews' bravura portrayal, which ranges from hilarious to heart-wrenching, Cornwell scores in one of the less flashy roles, illuminating the disadvantageous lot of a smart female in an otherwise strictly male environment. The young American actors playing the schoolboys achieve a respectable group effort, though their attempts to convincingly inhabit a British sensibility — particularly in terms of the dialects, coached by JB Blanc — yield uneven results. Making the strongest impressions are Seth Numrich as the handsome and self-satisfied Dakin and Alex Brightman as Posner, the Jewish boy tortured by his attraction to Dakin. Paige intelligently captures the conflicting emotions of his multilayered character, though his dialect is also inconsistent. Bob Crowley's fragmentary set, incorporating unusual angles, enhances the tensions of the academic environment, as does Mark Henderson's lighting. Austin Switser's superb video designs use a music-video style to convey story background and additional character details. While national tours provide a welcome opportunity to view Broadway hits locally, there's something especially satisfying about having a homegrown production for a change.
Presented by Center Theatre Group at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. Tue.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2 & 8 p.m., Sun. 1 & 6:30 p.m. (Dark Thu. Nov. 22 and Tue.-Wed. Dec. 4-5.) Nov. 14-Dec. 9. (213) 628-2772. www.centertheatregroup.org.