Athol Fugard, the esteemed and renowned South African playwright, has been inspired as well as emboldened by the turbulent political and social changes of his homeland. His artistic fervor has produced numerous plays (among them “Blood Knot,” “Boesman and Lena,” “A Lesson from Aloes,” Master Harold… and the Boys”) that have become classics of contemporary dramatic literature. But in “Exits and Entrances,” written in 2004, Fugard draws on his memory as a young writer and novice actor to create a play that is as endearing and as poignant as anything he has written up to now. Regrettably, I missed this production when it played at the New Jersey Repertory this past June. How fortunate that another chance came along to see this grand and rewarding play, one that should be seen by everyone who loves theater and by those who are dedicated to it.
Book-ended by the memory of the 29-year-old playwright as he sits at a desk in his Port Elizabeth apartment in 1961, the body of the play takes place in the dressing room of the Labia Theater in Cape Town in 1956, where “the playwright” is not only an apprentice actor but serving as dutiful dresser to Andre, a middle-aged, portly, whiskey-empowered actor of fading popularity. Except for the dressing table, an old armchair, and a rack of costumes, the room, designed by Charles Corcoran, is starkly functional. Andre is modeled after Andre Huguenet, a once legendary Afrikaan actor. His appearance as Oedipus Rex at the theater, not to mention his delightfully revelatory communion with the playwright, becomes the impetus of a wonderful, comically dramatic play.
Morland Higgins, who is making his New York stage debut, portrays Andre with a humorously commanding countenance and self-aggrandizing posturing that is not wasted on the awestruck apprentice, nicely acted by William Dennis Hurley, whose only wish is to serve this once titan of the South African stage. Hurley, who originated the role of the playwright at the play’s world premiere at the Fountain Theater in Los Angeles, does, by no means, remain in the shadow of Higgins’ bigger-than-life performance, but rather disarms us with his natural and good-natured reverence.
While it is made perfectly clear that Andre’s grandiose and decidedly hammy style of acting is no longer the vogue, his voice remains an instrument of great texture and nuance. It is to Higgins’ credit that the pompous intonations and mellifluous inflections that color his recitatives are always centered in a vibrant reality. Higgins is a joy to watch and creates a beautifully dimensional figure of a man courageously holding on to the last vestiges of his life as an actor of artistic integrity.
Early in the play, the doting, eager-to-please playwright helps Andre with his lines from Oedipus, as the actor puts on his formidable makeup. Fastening an uncooperative girdle around Andre’s waist may be an ordeal, but worth the result as we see Andre don the robes, foot gear, and accessories and invoke the ravings of the tragic, bloodied, and eyeless Oedipus. One gets more than bargained for as Higgins not only offers a generous chunk of Oedipus, but that of Cardinal Mindszenty as he agonizes in Bridget Boland’s “Prisoner.” But the piece de resistance is Andre’s mesmerizing interpretation of Hamlet’s “To Be or Not to Be,” in which he poignantly integrates the essence of the famed soliloquy in contemplation of his own life.
But this is not a play about self-aggrandizement, but about a love of theater and its glorious pretensions. Under Stephen Sach’s assured direction, the “old gay ham” and the young, awe-struck novice explore the terrain that has been the primary source of survival to one and served as the acknowledged springboard to self-fulfillment for the other. As much as “Exits and Entrances” is channeled through the playwright, it also becomes a vehicle for Andre’s memories to surface. Ironically, he recalls the first time he saw the legendary Pavlova dance. It would be the turning point for the heretofore unhappy dopper moffie (a derogatory Afrikaan phrase for village queer).
The play is resolved in a scene that takes place five years later at the Opera House in Port Elizabeth. The playwright has come to see Andre, who, it turns out, has just given his last performance. Andre, who has found intermediate employment as a cinema theater manager, is resigned to face the end of a long career that had begun nobly with “a vision of the Afrikaans theater of the future.” An honest discourse between the two is balanced with the response of the playwright, who we know as Athol Fugard and who is destined to emerge as a profound, poetic, dramatic voice for a radically re-defining Republic of South Africa.
“Exits and Entrances,” through Sunday, April 29, 59 E 59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street. $60. 212-279-4200.