Athol Fugard's stunning play in one long act, "Master Harold...and the boys," has come to Broadway, where it opened last evening at the Lyceum. Virtually the same production that was given its world premiere this past winter by the Yale Repertory Theater, it remains a matchless piece of theater.
The three-character allegorical work, which takes place in a Port Elizabeth "tea room," a standardized luncheonette, on a rainy South African afternoon in 1950, is a pure gem, every facet diamond bright. And just one of the many marvels of what is an essentially didactic play is its utter simplicity. In this latest variation, Fugard has given his constant theme, apartheid, a broader significance by making the tea room a microcosm of the world at large.
It is, in part, a memory play, as he has admitted. And as such, this vital episode in the lives of two black men and a white boy has a romantic glow around the edges. But the glow, and such is the unpredictable nature of art, only serves to make the shocking climax the more shattering so that we leave the theater with a profound sense of pity.
It begins and closes disarmingly enough with two black employees happily discussing an annual ballroom dance contest taking place two weeks hence. At the start, Willie, the slower-witted of the two, rises from the floor he has been cleaning with a rag to dance about while Sam, the waiter who has been dusting and rearranging furniture, laughingly instructs him in appropriate steps. At the end, Willie blithely shoves his last coin, his carfare home, into the jukebox and the two glide to the strains of the Sarah Vaughan-Count Basie recording of "Little Man, You've Had a Busy Day." In between, the world has changed.
Hally changes it. The white boy, who has been practically raised with the two men, comes by on his way home from high school. They are on easy terms, these three, and horsing around together until Hally learns that his crippled father, whose drunkenness and shallowness he fears and deplores, is being brought home from a hospital by his mother, the establishment's proprietress. Upset and frustrated, he takes it out on the blacks in the only way possible, by demeaning them - Sam, in particular, as a substitute for his father, and in the process himself, as well - and changing their relationship, perhaps irrevocably, though that question is left unresolved.
Fugard's mastery of his subject is such that his repeated use of metaphor, a practice that would seem too obvious in lesser hands, enhances the play's classic outlines. The world of the dance - Hally decides to use that for his class assignment of 500 words on a significant cultural event - is a world without collisions, unlike theirs, which is without music and in which nobody knows the words. The theme is echoed in almost every line - in the silent jukebox, the jarring phone calls Hally receives about his father, and most notably in a recollection about Sam's long-ago construction of a simple kite for the boy, a recollection that itself produces echoes near the finish.
The play vibrates as it slowly builds to its climax, taking us by surprise time and again in spite of its inexorable development.
The only change from the Yale production is the replacement of Zeljko Ivanek by Lonny Price as Hally. Ivanek, gone to make a movie, offered an indelible portrait with his pale, haunted, boyish face. It's a difficult act to follow, but Price is excellent as the bright, idealistic bundle of nerves who, in turning on his friends, turns on himself. But Zakes Mokae's Sam, a man of good cheer but deep wisdom, is at the heart of "Master Harold," and Mokae is superb. Though the part is smaller, Danny Glover's Willie is also exquisitely etched. All, of course, under the sure hand of Fugard himself.
Sets, costumes and lighting are unchanged from the earlier production, and serve admirably, as does Wesley Fata's "stage movement," which obviously has to do with all that dancing.
"Master Harold" is that rare theater experience, a perfect work of art.
Athol Fugard's Master Harold...and the Boys, which tore into Broadway's Lyceum Theater last night, is a molotov-cocktail kind of a play. At first, as it almost creakingly gets going, it seems a homemade, almost ramshackle kind of play, but when it explodes, like an unexpected thunderclap, it doesn't make the rafters ring, it leaves them blackened.
And this intensely, but subtly political play, leaves the audience drained by the barely simulated intensity of its experience. It is a play that grabs you to its own heart with bands of steel.
It is a political play about South Africa. It is about the South African policy of apartheid - racial segregation - but it is about much more. To Fugard - South Africa's best-known artist - life is not a simplistic matter of black and white.
Thus, in the most general terms, Master Harold is a tragicomedy concerned with growing up and living together.
It takes place in a Tea Room in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, on a wet and windy afternoon in 1950. The town is where Fugard grew up, and Master Harold is around the age Fugard would have been in 1950. How autobiographical the play is, I wouldn't know - but clearly it has been tempered in the forge of personal experience.
Hally (Master Harold of the title) is an adolescent going to grammar school. His crippled, alcoholic father is in the hospital, but, as we learn during the play, has just been released to go home. His mother runs the tea room - a sort of genteel South African version of a diner, although serving only lunch and tea-time snacks - and she is assisted by two black waiters, Sam and Willie (the boys of the title).
On this rain-sodden afternoon the cafe - and it is stressing even dramatic unlikelihood a little far - has no customers at all. Yet it doesn't matter - for this cafe is also a symbol in Fugard's fantasy of reality.
As we first see Sam and Willie they are preparing for a ballroom dancing championship - they are staunch advocates of that unexpected bulwark of British civilization, the ballroom dancing pundit, Victor Sylvester, who was to ballroom dancing what Dale Carnegie was to confidence.
But like the cafe - ballroom dancing is also a symbol. As Sam explains: "Ballroom dancing is like a dreamworld where accidents do not happen." People do not bump into one another. Life is civilized, orderly and just. This afternoon in the cafe, people do bump into one another. Master Harold has a traumatic confrontation with his boys.
Eventually, the play's texture becomes thrillingly complex. We are watching the emotional death of a young boy, but although Fugard is anything but nihilistic, also, the emotional death of a nation. Yet Fugard interweaves his themes with consummate skill. And the play's delayed explosion - it is as if, to change the metaphor, the play shifted the gears of its intention midway - casts, by the end, an ash-laden retrospective glow on the beginning.
Fugard has directed the play himself with the utmost certainty - knowing precisely the effects he needs, the lines he can waste, the tension he can spare. He has the nerve to wait longer than most directors would to wind up that tension, to change that gear. And when he does, all frozen hell crashes loose.
Jane Clark's seedy tea-room setting strikes me as more serviceable than it did when the play was first done in New Haven by the Yale Repertory Theater. However, in one respect, the production has lost something.
In New Haven, the young actor Zeljko Ivanek, who originally played Hally, seemed incredibly to be making the character from the shreds and shards of his own experience. His Broadway successor, Lonny Price, gives a deeply felt performance, but it seems more remote from the play, too overlaid with New York street smarts to be totally convincing.
The two elderly boys remain the same - Danny Glover is marvelously ragamuffin yet decent as the simple-minded Willie, but it is the wounded, human dignity of Zakes Mokae as Sam that provides the image you will take away.
With his raspy voice sounding like some metallic robot, his stiff, un-stagey stance, his worried, deep-furrowed face, Mokae, as waiter, Hally's sometime surrogate father, and the conscience of us all, is wonderful.
This is an exhilarating play. It sends you out into the world's cold air, shattered but uplifted, even cleansed. It is a triumph of playmaking, and unforgettable.
There may be two or three living playwrights in the world who can write as well as Athol Fugard, but I'm not sure that any of them has written a recent play that can match '''Master Harold' ... and the Boys.'' Mr. Fugard's drama - lyrical in design, shattering in impact - is likely to be an enduring part of the theater long after most of this Broadway season has turned to dust.
''Master Harold,'' which opened at the Lyceum last night following its March premiere at the Yale Repertory Theater, may even outlast the society that spawned it - the racially divided South Africa of apartheid. Though Mr. Fugard's play is set there in 1950, it could take place nearly anywhere at any time. The word ''apartheid'' is never mentioned; the South African references are minimal. The question that Mr. Fugard raises - how can men of all kinds find the courage to love one another? - is dealt with at such a profound level that ''Master Harold'' sweeps quickly beyond the transitory specifics of any one nation. It's not for nothing that this is the first play Mr. Fugard has chosen to open away from home.
What's more, the author deals with his issue without attitudinizing, without sentimentality, without lecturing the audience. ''Master Harold'' isn't another problem play in which people stand for ideological positions. By turns funny and tragic, it uncovers its moral imperatives by burrowing deeply into the small, intimately observed details of its three characters' lives.
We meet those characters on a rainy afternoon, as they josh and chat in a fading tea room. Two of them, Sam (Zakes Mokae) and Willie (Danny Glover), are black waiters who rehearse for a coming ballroom dancing contest while tidying up the restaurant. Because they only have enough money for bus fare home, they can't put Sarah Vaughan on the jukebox: they imagine the music, as well as their Ginger Rogers-like partners, as they twirl about. Eventually they are joined by Hally (Lonny Price), who is the son of the tea room's owner. A precocious white prep-school student on the verge of manhood, Hally has stopped by to eat lunch and work on an English essay.
The black servants are the boy's second family: they have been employed by his parents since Hally was in short trousers. But, for all the easy camaraderie and tender memories that unite master and servants, there's a slight distance in their relationship, too. As the waiters practice their steps, Hally playfully but condescendingly calls them ''a pair of hooligans.'' To the boy, such dancing is a ''simple-minded'' reflection of ''the culture of primitive black society'' - only now ''the war dance has been replaced by the waltz.''
But the articulate Sam, an unacknowledged mentor to Hally since childhood, patiently sets the boy to thinking otherwise. Dancing, Sam contends, ''is like being in a dream about a world where accidents don't happen'' - where white and black, rich and poor, men and women don't bump into one another. Hally is so taken with this theory that he decides to write his essay about it. Maybe, he postulates, ''the United Nations is a dancing school for politicians.'' Maybe ''there is hope for mankind after all.''
It's a lovely, idyllic metaphor, and there is much joy in ''Master Harold'' as the characters imagine their utopian ''world without collisions.'' Yet the joy soon dissipates. Mr. Fugard has structured his intermissionless 100-minute play much as Sam describes a dance contest: ''a relaxed atmosphere changes to one of tension and drama as the climax approaches.'' When the tension erupts in ''Master Harold,'' it rips through the audience so mercilessly that the Lyceum falls into an almost deathly hush.
The drama is catalyzed by a series of phone calls Hally receives from his real-life family offstage. Hally's father, we learn, is a drunk, a cripple and a racist; his mother is his long-suffering victim. Hally is caught between them, and, as old wounds are ripped open, the bitterness of his entire childhood comes raging to the surface. The boy is soon awash in tearful self-pity and, in the absence of his real father, takes out his anger on his surrogate father, Sam. What follows is an unstoppable, almost unwatchable outpouring of ugliness, in which Hally humiliates the black man he loves by insisting that he call him ''Master Harold,'' by mocking their years of shared secrets, by spitting in his face.
Mr. Fugard's point is simple enough: Before we can practice compassion - before we can, as Sam says, ''dance life like champions'' - we must learn to respect ourselves. It is Hally's self-hatred that leads him to strike at the black man and his crippled Dad and, in this sense, the boy is typical of anyone who attacks the defenseless to bolster his own self-esteem.
But ''Master Harold,'' unlike many works that deal with the genesis of hatred, forces us to identify with the character who inflicts the cruelty. We like Hally so much in the play's early stages, and empathize with his familial sorrow so keenly later on, that it's impossible to pull back once he lashes out. And because we can't sever ourselves from Hally, we're forced to confront our own capacity for cruelty - and to see all too clearly just who it is we really hurt when we give in to it.
Mr. Fugard can achieve this effect because he has the guts to face his own shame: Hally, a fledgling artist who believes in social reform, is too richly drawn not to be a ruthlessly honest portrait of the playwright as a young man. But if Mr. Fugard's relentless conscience gives ''Master Harold'' its remarkable moral center, his brilliance as an artist gives the play its classic esthetic simplicity.
This work is totally without pretension. As Sam says that the trick of dancing is to ''make it look easy,'' so Mr. Fugard understands that the same is true in the theater. The dialogue is light and easy, full of lilting images that gradually warp as the darkness descends. After Hally relives the exultant childhood experience of flying his first kite with Sam, the kite comes down to the ground, ''like something that has lost its soul.'' Sam's description of graceful waltzers is usurped by the boy's vision of ''cripples dancing like a bunch of broken spiders.''
Like the script, the production has been deftly choreographed by the author: you don't know you're entering the center of a storm until you're there. The one newcomer to the cast since Yale, Mr. Price, will be at the level of his predecessor, Zeljko Ivanek, as soon as he tones down his overly cute youthful friskiness in Hally's early scenes. Once the protagonist falls apart, Mr. Price takes the audience right with him on his bottomless descent to self-immolation.
As the easygoing Willie, Mr. Glover is a paragon of sweet kindliness - until events leave him whipped and sobbing in a chair, his low moans serving as forlorn counterpoint to the play's main confrontation. Mr. Mokae's Sam is a transcendental force - an avuncular, hearty figure who slowly withdraws into dignified serenity as Hally taunts him. Though the boy has repaid the servant's lifelong instruction in tolerance by making him feel ''dirty,'' Mr. Mokae still glows with his dream of a world of perfect dancers - one that's like ''a love story with a happy ending.''
The author doesn't provide that happy ending, of course - it's not his to confer. But if ''Master Harold'' finally lifts us all the way from pain to hope, it's because Mr. Fugard insists that that ending can be - must be - ours to write.