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‘Dead Poets Society’ review: Jason Sudeikis triumphs in Robin Williams role

Jason Sudeikis, right, exhorts his young students in

Jason Sudeikis, right, exhorts his young students in "Dead Poets Society." Credit: Joan Marcus

WHAT “Dead Poets Society”

WHERE Classic Stage Company, 136 E. 13th St.

INFO $70-$125 (check for availability); 212-352-3101

BOTTOM LINE Jason Sudeikis triumphs in predictable movie adaptation.

Jason Sudeikis begins his New York stage debut by whistling Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” in tune without breaking a sweat. And that’s hardly the only remarkable accomplishment in the actor’s portrayal of John Keating, idealistic English teacher, in the first stage version of “Dead Poets Society.”

Sudeikis, the comic/movie star admired for what he calls “braggarts and showoffs” on “Saturday Night Live,” is compelling, endearing and utterly comfortable in the role that helped define Robin Williams’ serious side in the 1989 film. Since the Classic Stage Company’s theater has just 199 seats, with audiences on three sides of the stage, theatergoers cannot help but notice that Sudeikis, with his crinkly smile lines and thoughtful smile, has the reassuring presence of a happy man.

And that’s perfect for Keating, alumnus of the uptight private New England academy for boys in 1959, who, despite being a Rhodes Scholar, has come back to inspire obedient students with renegade “seize the day” attitude and romantic poetry.

For a story about releasing our free spirit, however, this turns out to be a very conventional play. Tony-winning director John Doyle, in his first season as head of the Off-Broadway company, shakes up some of the doggedly straightforward story by omitting furniture and having the six students sit — and stand and jump — on piles of books taken from the library wall of Scott Pask’s clean and simple set.

Despite such directorial stylizations, the 100-minute script, adapted by Tom Schulman from his own Oscar-winning screenplay, is heartfelt but dishearteningly old-fashioned. The good characters, which include almost all the boys at some point or another, remain good. The nasty ones — particularly the strict headmaster (portrayed with almost laughable menace by David Garrison) — are unrepentant meanies.

The six classmates have character definitions that might have been picked according to a one-from-column A, one-from column B writing manual. We have the smart one (Thomas Mann), the misfit (Bubba Weiler), the quiet, damaged one (Zane Pais), et al. — all well cast and sensitively directed.

Compared with the complex psychology in “The History Boys,” also a play and a movie about a boys’ school, this one has the earnest linear payoff of an after-school special.

Sudeikis, however, is a different breed of special altogether.

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