Had I seen Signature Theatre’s fine revival of Athol Fugard’s most popular play just a few days earlier, I might have appreciated it primarily as a well-wrought work of theater, relegating its depiction of the brutal effects of state-approved racism to a safely distant time and place. Now the play feels more like an urgent warning.
“Master Harold”…and the boys takes place on a quiet, rainy afternoon in 1950 at the St. George’s Park Tea Room in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, between Hally, the white son of the owner, and the two black employees of the restaurant, Sam and Willie. There is obvious affection among the three, with Sam, a man in his 40’s, long effectively surrogate father for Hally, 17 years old, smart and immature, whose own father is chronically ill and an unreliable drunk.
There are hints in the play from the get-go of the oppressive nature of South Africa’s apartheid system. When Hally tells of having received corporal punishment from one of his teachers for having drawn a caricature of him, Sam asks him: “With your trousers down?”
“No. He’s not quite that barbaric,” Hally replies.
“That’s the way they do it in jail,” Sam says. “…when the magistrate sentences you to ‘strokes with a light cane.’” Hally is fascinated; clearly such information is kept from the country’s white children.
Fugard drives home the inherent brutishness of South African society in one explosive moment, when Hally becomes frustrated and upset after getting a phone call from his mother telling him that his father is coming home from the hospital – and he lashes out at his friend. It is a testament to the skillful construction of the play that this betrayal hits us so hard.
The 84-year-old playwright directs the Signature production himself, and he does it with a masterful attention to details. When Hally first enters the restaurant from the rain, for example, Willie deferentially lays a towel at his feet, so that Hally can wipe his shoes, and Sam playfully drapes a towel over his head, to dry his hair – and we see right away the complicated and disparate relationships the two men have with the boy.
Casting is crucial to make these relationships plausible. Fugard was lucky in the 1982 Broadway production of the play to have Danny Glover as Willie, Zakes Mokae (who won a Tony for the role) as Sam and Lonny Price as Hally, Twenty years later, Price directed the Broadway revival of the play, again starring Danny Glover, although playing Sam. (Price is returning to Broadway in February to direct Sunset Boulevard.)
Sam this time around is portrayed by Leon Addison Brown, who projects just the right mix of dignity, decency, warmth and compassion. Brown’s performance is all the more remarkable for being so different from the seemingly similar role of folk artist Nukain Mabuza in Fugard’s last new work on a New York stage, last year’s Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek. Sahr Ngaujah also had a part in that play, though he is better known as the star of Fela, the Broadway musical that told the story of the forceful musician and politician Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. In Master Harold, Ngaujah has transformed himself into Willie, a completely different character, well-meaning, fun-loving, slightly dim, comically vulnerable to Sam’s teasing. He provides much of the comic relief in the play through his frustrated attempts to master the art of ballroom dancing in preparation for a forthcoming competition.
As Hally, Noah Robbins would be a revelation, if I hadn’t been following his career already. Robbins, who made his Broadway debut straight out of Georgetown Day School as Eugene in the 2009 Neil Simon revival of Brighton Beach Memoirs, is now best-known for playing a different Eugene, the nebbishy brain, on Grease Live. That part called for a broad brush.
Here he exhibits a varied palette. Although now 26, Robbins is a completely believable teenager, someone simultaneously full of himself, and deeply insecure; delighted in Sam and Willie’s company, but also grandly condescending to them: After Sam and Hally excitedly recount the many years that the boy shared his homework with the otherwise-unschooled man, Hally exclaims: “Tolstoy may have educated his peasants, but I’ve educated you.” That Hally’s condescension takes an ugly turn is, as Robbins helps us see, less a reflection of his inherent nature than of the world in which he is being brought up — small comfort perhaps. But I prefer to linger on Hally’s earlier-expressed idealism: “There is something called progress, you know,” Hally tells Sam. “We don’t exactly burn people at the stake anymore.”
Sam: “Like Joan of Arc”
Hally: “Correct. If she was captured today, she’d be given a fair trial.”
Sam: “And then the death sentence”
Hally: “I know, I know. I oscillate between hope and despair for this world as well, Sam. But things will change, you wait and see…”
“Master Harold”…and the boys is on stage at the Pershing Square Signature Center 480 West 42nd Street, East of 10th Avenue, New York, NY 10036) through December 11, 2016.
Tickets and details
“Master Harold”…and the boys . Written and Directed by Athol Fugard. Cast: Leon Addison Brown, Sahr Ngaujah, Noah Robbins. Scenic Design by Christopher H. Barreca, Costume Design by Susan Hilferty . Lighting Design by Stephen Strawbridge, Sound Design by John Gromada, Dialect Coach Barbara Rubin, Production Stage Manager: Linda Marvel, Associate Director: Paula Fourie, Choreographer: Peter Pucci. Produced by Signature Theatre . Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell