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Master Harold . . .and the Boys
Forgot the story? Master Harold revolves around a white teenager named Harold (nicknamed Hally), a prep student who has a complex friendship with two black servants Sam and Willie, who work at his parents' down-at-heel tea room in the South African town of Port Elizabeth of 1950. On a rainy afternoon at the restaurant, Sam teaches Willie some dance steps for an upcoming ballroom dancing competition and Hally splits his attention between homework and pointed debates with Sam. When a telephone call from Hally's mother interrupts the trio's pleasant afternoon, the play takes on a tragic tone.
I missed seeing Danny Glover as Willie (the role that spawned his movie carer) in the 1982 Broadway premiere of Master Harold in 1984. But I did catch him as Sam in the 2003 revival at the Royale. This production, directed by Lonny Price, was uneven but Glover was a standout.
In Fugard's current outing, the play greatly benefits by being staged in a more intimate space. The audience is never far from the action and can better see the subtleties of the actors' body language and facial expressions. Fugard impeccably directs to let the Beckett-like simplicity of his play be its strong suit. He trusts to its spare language, vividly-limned characters, and the tableaus of the racial hate percolating in South Africa of 1950. Ironically, he succeeds by steering clear of cleverness and adhering to the old-time Aristotelian unities.
Leon Addison Brown's Sam may not make those who saw it forget Glover's striking performance in the 2003. However, Brown proves himself quite capable of portraying Sam, warts and all. He intelligently straddles the triple demands of this pivotal role: surrogate father to Hally, dance mentor to Willie, and wise man of the play.
Sahr Ngaujah (of Fela! fame) doesn't disappoint with his performance of Willie either. He inhabits him with a disarming naiveness and dash of ambition.
Lastly, there's the notoriously difficult to pull off role of the playwright's alter ego. Noah Robbins nails him with the right blend of teenage arrogance and vulnerability.
Not to be overlooked is the design team. Christopher H. Barreca's correctly washed-out set, complemented by Stephen Strawbridge's soft lighting, evokes a restaurant that has fallen on hard times. Susan Hilferty's costumes sharply depict the social status of the three characters. Peter Pucci's choreography and John Gromada's sound design, cheek-by-jowl, make the foxtrot come alive on stage. It's Peter Pucci's choreography and John Gromada's sound design that cheek-by-jowl make the foxtrot come alive on stage.
While Barbara Rubin obviously did her job as dialect coach, there were times when the performers elided their syllables to the point of blurring. Though the sense of the dialogue always came through I did have to strain my ears now and then to catch the ensemble's South African cadences.
Favorite scene? If pressed, I would go with the one where Sam and Hally reminisce and re-enact their kite-flying experience. It becomes a window into their surrogate father-son relationship and probes how the two characters deal with the double tragedies surfacing in the play: Hally's crippled alcoholic father and the poisonous presence of apartheid in Port Elizabeth.
As important as any particulars of this production is that it's another step forward in the continued and fruitful relationship that the Signature has built with Fugard as one of their artists-in-residence. They have presented five Fugard works to date, most recently his fine ne play The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek .
Mr. Fugard was awarded a Tony for Lifetime Achievement in the Theater in 2011. And he's still stirring up theatrical dust at the Signature, in his native South Africa, and beyond. The revival of his autobiographicalMaster Harold is a fine opportunity to re-visit a gem that transcends the dark days of apartheid.
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Master Harold . . . and the Boys
Written and eirected by Athol Fugard
Cast: Leon Addison Brown (Sam), Sahr Ngaujah (Willie), Noah Robbins (Hally).
Sets: Christopher H. Barreca
Lighting: Stephen Strawbridge
Sound: John Gromada
Dialect Coach: Barbara Rubin
Choreographer: Peter Pucci
Stage manager: Linda Marvel
The Irene Diamond Stage at the Pershing Square Signature Center, at 480 W. 42^nd Street. Tickets: $30. Phone (212) 244-7529 or visit online at www.signaturetheatre.org
From 10/18/16; opening 11/07/16; closing 12/4/16.
Tuesday through Friday @ 7:30pm; Saturday @ 8pm; Wednesday & Saturday matinees @ 2pm.
Running time: 100 minutes with no intermission
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on press performance of 11/4/16
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