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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the June 25, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Broadway Review: `Master Harold’ . . .

It has been 21 years since "`Master Harold’…and

the boys," by masterly South African playwright Athold Fugard

premiered on Broadway. Since then, apartheid, for all intents and

purposes, has officially ended. However, the tragedy of South Africa’s

embrace of that insidious system, and its effect on the people, remain

a key theme of Fugard despite his more recent digression in his plays

for less incendiary plots. "Master Harold" remains, along

with "A Lesson from Aloes," "The Road to Mecca," "Blood

Knot," and practically his entire canon that spans 50 years, one

of the plays that sublimely makes an appeal for a raised consciousness

to bridge those ridiculous man-made boundaries. The production, as

revived by the Roundabout Theater Company, and superbly directed by

Lonnie Price (who played Hally in the 1982 production) succeeds in

not only raising our consciousness but our awareness of Fugard’s courageously

attempt to uncover and expose the causes of hate among men.

Although the play’s setting is South Africa in 1950, the time and

place are insignificant to the universal truths that Fugard fearlessly

brings out through his three characters. Through them we see how seeds

planted in childhood bear fruit in maturity. The sensitivities and

emotions of three human beings are entwined in a relationship that

becomes not only a stage to expose the weeds of bigotry and shallowness

but for the enlightenment and blossoming of understanding and tolerance

through love and self-esteem.

Don’t be misled in thinking this is a lecture play filled with pompous

platitudes. Rather, it is a powerful and compassionate story of Hally

(Christopher Denham), a young man who finds himself at the crossroads

of childhood and manhood unable to cope with his bigoted, alcoholic

father or to make a comfortable adjustment in his relationship with

two black waiters he has grown up with in his parent’s business, a

modest tea room in Port Elizabeth. John Lee Beatty’s setting, the

aged green-tinged walls, the basic tables and chairs, the corner juke

box and soda counter is as basic in its evocation as is the constant

downpour that can be seen from the window.

Sam (Danny Glover) and Willie (Michael Boatman) have been Hally’s

second family since he was an infant. The delicately balanced relationship

between master and slave has been kept more or less subliminal until

a crisis occurs during the play that details the crumbling of Hally’s

character. Unable to cope with knowledge that "the boys" have

mentored him through the years and developed a kinship that their

society is not able to tolerate, Hally stupidly and irrationally regresses

back to the structured prison of blissful ignorance.

Hally is a complex mixture of immaturity and ugliness that Denham

conveys most compellingly. His emotional outbursts and humiliating

attacks on Sam provide the kind of silent and stunned reaction from

the audience that is rarely felt so deeply. Denham, a recent graduate

of the University of Illinois, where he studied literature — not

acting — makes a stunning Broadway debut delivering a highly-strung,

distressed, and eminently truthful performance that would have easily

qualified for award nominations had the play opened earlier.

Glover, who played Willie in the 1982 production, brings

an awesome stature and a transcendent sense of humanity to Sam, who,

understandably recoils from Hally’s reckless and heartless taunts.

It is that rarest kind of intense restraint that drives Glover’s riveting

portrayal. It is both heartening and heartbreaking to see Sam, almost

devastated, rally and become a man in possession of his soul —

as if strengthened by some inner self-awareness. Boatman, also making

his Broadway debut, is touching as Willie, a man whose sweetness and

vulnerability becomes painful to witness as he sees the ones he loves

most sever the ties that have bound them much too delicately. This

profound play of hope, written with extraordinary power and insight

by one of the great playwrights of our time, brings distinction to

the beginning of the new season. Four stars: Don’t miss.

— Simon Saltzman

`Master Harold’… and the boys, Roundabout Theater Production

at the Royale Theater, 242 West 45th Street, New York. $46.25 to $71.25.

To July 13. Tele-Charge at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200.

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