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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
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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