There's a confrontation late in Athol Fugard's “’Master Harold'... and the boys" where the past catches up to the present with devastating consequences.
It's a difficult moment to watch, primarily because what has gone before has been so generous and so natural in its depiction of a white teenager and an older black man connecting across more than a generation. They could be father and son.
But the time is 1950 and the place is Port Elizabeth, South Africa, where race is never far from the surface, no matter how genial the banter and how comfortable the characters are with each other.
"Master Harold," first seen on Broadway in 1982, is Fugard's most personal and heartbreaking play, a beautifully realized drama in which the South African writer creates three indelible characters and proceeds to change their lives.
The only question today is how well does the current Broadway production, on view at the Royale Theatre, measures up to the play itself. For the most part very well, indeed, under Lonny Price's efficient direction.
A summary of its leisurely plot: "Master Harold" is Hally, a precocious 17-year-old prep schooler whose mother and father own a dilapidated tea room where two black men, Sam and Willie, work. 'The play takes place on a rainy afternoon as the two employees are cleaning the shop and Hally (Christopher Denham) arrives after school.
Sam and Willie are preoccupied with the upcoming finals of a ballroom-dancing contest as tile smoothly confidant Sam (Danny Glover) teaches the awkward Willie (Michael Boatman) to move around the floor without colliding. Not a bad metaphor for an idealized world, and Fugard works it for all it's worth.
"There's no collisions out there ... Nobody trips or stumbles or bumps into anybody else," Sam rhapsodizes. "To be one of those finalists on that dance floor is like ...being in a dream about a world in which accidents don't happen."
But in the real world, accidents do happen, some more hurtful than others. Here they are precipitated by telephone calls from Hally's mother who is bringing his alcoholic father home from the hospital. It's a decision Hally violently opposes, and he takes out his anger not on his absent parents, who never appear in the play, but on his surrogate father.
It's this anger that detonates the play's savage confrontation, a moment that stuns the audience as much as it does the three characters on stage. In its aftermath, friendships are irrevocably torn.
Glover, who was in the original Broadway production as Willie, has graduated to the pivotal role of Sam. The actor brings a quiet dignity and strength to the play's wise father figure.
Denham, who looks a bit older than 17, exudes the volatility that propels Hally to the precipice. If his South African accent occasionally wanders, the nervous energy that masks Hally's insecurity never flags.
As the genial Willie, Boatman is ingratiating, the unsuspecting spectator who has a ringside seat to all the family carnage. Yet despite the despair, "'Master Harold'... and the boys" ends on a moment of uplift.
At the fade out, there's Sam and Willie gliding across the floor as the tea-room jukebox plays a wistful tune. The older man is a latter-day Fred Astaire trying to get a neophyte Ginger Rogers ready for that big contest. Life may have been shattered for a moment, but that's no reason not to pick up the pieces and go on dancing. You have no choice.
For decades, the plays of Athol Fugard reminded the world of the hatefulness of apartheid in South Africa. The injustices of that racist regime provided a powerful subtext to plays whose plots and characters were sometimes thin.
"Master Harold ... and the Boys" is about a white boy's unwitting but inevitable rite of passage into the culture of hatred. When the play was first presented on Broadway in 1982, Danny Glover played a small role and Lonny Price was the boy. In the solid Roundabout revival, directed by Price, Glover plays Sam, the lead.
"Master Harold" is set in 1950, two years after apartheid became law. The boy, Hally, has grown up with two black men, Sam and Willy, who work in his parents' tea room in Port Elizabeth. As the play begins, Sam and Willy discuss a dance contest.
Hally arrives after school to do his homework. His alcoholic, bigoted father is in the hospital, which makes Hally's life easier.
His mother phones to say she is bringing his father home, which sends Hally into a rage.
He takes his anger out on Sam, who has always been his most understanding friend. Apartheid is seen as an expression of personal recrimination, where blacks become pawns used by whites to work out their grievances against one another.
The weakness of the play is that there is little preparation for Hally's vindictive turning on Sam. When apartheid was in force, it provided a kind of spine for the play, making the leap into viciousness seem normal, at least in South Africa.
Here, Hally's spitting on Sam and Sam's subsequent baring of his posterior seem forced, a way of demonstrating the self-demeaning and almost predetermined behavior apartheid inspired; both acts are too strong for the immediate motivation.
The play is structured to accentuate the shock of Hally's behavior. The whole first part is sunny, the lull, so to speak, before the storm. In this production, the lull lasts far too long.
Glover has immense dignity as Sam. His final, mournful address to Hally seems drawn from a lifetime of consciously suppressed feelings. Christopher Denham conveys the emotional volatility of Hally with great intensity. Michael Boatman has a sad sweetness as the bewildered Willy.
John Lee Beatty's set eloquently lit by Peter Kaczorowski, has a desolate quality perfectly suited to the play, which Price has directed skillfully. “Master Harold' may not be one of Fugard's most successful plays, but this revival brings out its considerable strengths.
Hollywood's Danny Glover and New York director Lonny Price last night at the Royale Theater returned to the moment of their first Broadway success - but returned with a difference.
It was in 1982 that South Africa's great playwright Athol Fugard premiered his fascinating, horrifying play "Master Harold . . . and the boys," in a production he staged himself.
Back then Price was playing Hal, the "Master Harold" of the title, while Glover was making his Broadway debut as Willy, the second banana among the two "boys."
Now Price is directing the play, and Glover is in the role of Sam, originated by that ineffable South African actor, Zakes Mokae. And new/old team worked together brilliantly, rolling back time and even history.
South Africa's former policy of apartheid, forcibly separating the nation's black majority from the ruling white minority, was full of horrors. But it was obviously even fuller of human indignities and ironies.
And it is these that Fugard so powerfully stressed. Yet since the play's premiere South Africa has changed and is today a democracy, with apartheid only a grin1 memory there, and a memory growing even fainter in the rest of the world.
So how would "Master Harold," set carefully in 1950, fare when its apparent underpinning of apartheid, or at least its immediacy, was pulled from under it?
That was the question posed by the Roundabout Theater Company's new production of this play of a tempest in a Tea Room.
The answer is, a really fine work survives its time. It does not depend on contemporary circumstances, but has a lasting relevance.
"Master Harold" is one of those depth-charge plays. It starts amiably enough with the friendly chitchat between Hal, a troubled white teenager and Sam and Willie, two middle-aged black waiters, who work in Hal's parents' Tea Room in Port Elizabeth.
It soon becomes apparent that Sam is a kind of surrogate father to Hal, whose own father is a viciously racist alcoholic, at the moment hospitalized
But then an emotional bombshell explodes in this quiet setting, and Hal subjects Sam to a silly, racist joke, breaks apart and ends by spitting Sam in the face. Nothing can be the same again.
The story is simple, but the resonance that Fugard brings to it lets it reach beyond the narrative, to touch so many nerves connected to betrayal and guilt and not just those attached to vestigial or hidden racism.
It is also more fundamentally the story of Judas and it bears the mark of Cain. It hits the conscience and soul of all but the perfect.
That original Broadway production was pretty much flawless, and, so far as I can recall, Price's new staging doesn't stray too far from Fugard's concept.
Glover as Sam doesn't reveal the same gentle, affronted dignity of Mokae - Glover never himself suffered the agony of apartheid - yet the rougher humanity he brings to the role, is equally effective and in a way more appealing.
Michael Boatman, charmingly in the background, makes a lovable figure of Willie, while Christopher Denham's shrill and tortured Hal drives straight to the heart of this disturbed teen in search of a father.
Add to this the production design - John Lee Beatty for setting, Jane Greenwood for costumes and Peter Kaczorowski for lighting - all superior to the modest 1982 staging, and you have a new version of "Master Harold" that can triumphantly survive any test of time.
This is electric theater that can move, shock and thrill.
Those who lament the eroding effects of time and Hollywood on vital young actors might want to check out what Danny Glover is up to. After some 20 highly visible years in film, where he became an action hero in the ''Lethal Weapon'' series, Mr. Glover has returned to Broadway in the same play in which he made his debut in 1982, Athol Fugard's '' 'Master Harold' . . . and the Boys.'' Time, in this instance, has been generous.
Two decades can chip away at a man as he slides into middle age. But Mr. Glover, in the uneven revival that opened last night at the Royale Theater, emerges with a presence so enhanced that it verges on the monumental. He doesn't coast on dignity, though. This is gravitas rendered in shades of gray.
It should be added that Mr. Glover has a different, larger and much richer role than he did in the original New York production of this wrenching coming-of-age drama. Mr. Glover, who then portrayed a simple South African servant named Willie, is now playing Willie's older, more complex friend and co-worker, Sam, a part indelibly created by Zakes Mokae, who won a Tony for it.
That Mr. Glover sidesteps the shadow of Mr. Mokae with grace is heartening news for theatergoers. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said of Lonny Price's new staging of this play in relation to the benchmark 1982 production, directed by Mr. Fugard.
This is, by the way, the same Lonny Price who affectingly played Mr. Fugard's alter ego, young Master Harold, when the show first opened in New York. Clearly, this is one revival that on many levels must wrestle with powerful memories. Mr. Price's interpretation for the Roundabout Theater Company, which runs through July 13, doesn't make fools of those who regard ''Master Harold'' as Mr. Fugard's greatest work. But it never scales the emotionally devastating peaks of which the play is capable.
Much of the problem, curiously, lies in the casting and direction of Mr. Price's old role, shouldered here by a good-looking newcomer named Christopher Denham, identified in his Playbill biography as a recent graduate of the University of Illinois and the author of two novels. Mr. Fugard has said that the character of Master Harold, or Hally, a 17-year-old schoolboy in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, was inspired by his own adolescence, and it is one of the most unsparing self-portraits ever created for the stage.
A monster of egocentricity in a way only teenagers can be, Hally also becomes a glaring reflection of a hate-filled colonial ruling class. To become a man -- or a white man in 1950 -- in this society is to accept the urge to dominate, to belittle.
In defining one shattering moment in Hally's relationships with Willie (Michael Boatman) and Sam, family servants and Hally's childhood playmates, Mr. Fugard creates a blistering fusion of the personal and the political. It's a moment that leaves everyone who has identified with Hally, or even liked him, feeling implicated. For this scene to exert its full power, you should indeed be able to see yourself in Hally, who stops by on the way home from school at the tearoom run by his mother, where Willie and Sam are working. You at first need to think, with equal affection and embarrassment, ''Oh, sure, I was rather like that,'' as Hally struts his intellectual pretensions before Willie and Sam, falls into old patterns of childhood games and agonizes over the possible return of his alcoholic father from the hospital.
Mr. Denham, whose appearance brings to mind a pointier, flakier Tom Cruise, never manages this essential act of ingratiation with the audience. His voice spiking raggedly and his body a mass of quivering angles, this Hally takes the stage on the brink of a nervous breakdown, and there's nowhere for him to move on to but the highlands of hysteria. He's an undeniably sharp presence, but you're on your guard with him from the beginning.
Hally's patronizing aspects have always been evident from his first lines, as he alternates between doing his homework and watching Willie and Sam rehearse for a ballroom-dancing competition while they set up the tearoom (designed here by John Lee Beatty) for customers who never arrive on this rainy afternoon.
But in most productions you're initially willing to excuse the boy's arrogance as ''the mistakes of youth,'' as Hally says in another context. You can see why Sam, with whom Hally has shared his education over the years, adores him. You can also see how this boy might soon grow into a man to be admired or, just as easily, despised.
Willie and Sam's responses to Hally -- mixtures of love, solicitude, woundedness -- are exquisitely reflected in the faces of Mr. Glover and Mr. Boatman, who are deeply expressive listeners. (Otherwise, Mr. Boatman has a tendency to exaggerate Willie's comic shtick.) But you may also wonder if this shrill little showoff is a worthy object of their concern. When Hally turns vicious, after a fraught phone call with his parents, it simply doesn't stun as it needs to.
There are moments, as when Hally lovingly describes the kite that Sam once made for him, that still lance the heart. But in daring to present Hally as a frothing proto-fascist from his entrance, this ''Master Harold'' takes on a moralizing, almost Brechtian tone that keeps you at a protected distance. Observations on social power and prejudice that should sneak up on you now blaze like supertitles.
It is all the more to Mr. Glover's credit that Sam comes across as something more than long-suffering patience on a pedestal. He is a shade too measured in his climactic speech to Hally, which certainly doesn't require underlining. But whether tripping lightly through the tearoom to waltz rhythms in his head or restraining himself in the face of Hally's taunts, Mr. Glover suggests a man for whom calm is an existential choice in a violent society.
When that surface is finally torn by anger, you might find yourself feeling bereaved, as if something precious had been lost. Theater, however, offers special consolations. There is also something precious in having Mr. Glover on a stage again, to locate that sense of loss with such immediacy.
Perhaps a third into Lonny Price's busy but strangely lethargic revival of Athol Fugard's 1982 "Master Harold ... and the boys," the white South African teenager named Hally is debating the nature of greatness with Sam, the wise black waiter who has virtually raised him. Since Sam is played by no less a talent and controversial moral force than Danny Glover, the lesson about men "of magnitude" takes on a shimmering resonance that embraces both the playwright and the increasing actor.
We wish we could report that the production - the first of the official new Broadway season - is full of moments with such force and illumination. Indeed Glover, who made his breakthrough Broadway debut 21 years ago as the younger black man, Willie, in this three-character apartheid elegy, has a churning gravity and understated charm that elevate everything Sam says into a message of intimate yet global significance.
Unfortunately, the revival, which the Roundabout Theatre Company opened at the Royale Theatre last night, feels historic in all the wrong ways. Price has directed this highly personal journey with little new insight and more antic energy than poetry especially in his hyperactive direction of Christopher Denham as young master Hally, the role Price, the actor, himself created on Broadway. If the intention was to remind the theater world about this wonderful playwright and the universal context of the South African struggle, well, something less familiar - and less conspicuously noble - might have perked things up.
It would be tragic if this revival marks Fugard and apartheid as old news. "Master Harold" may have been the playwright's biggest mainstream hit, but it was hardly the most challenging work from one of the few great playwrights in the English-speaking world.
The metaphor here is the 1950 ballroom dance contest. Sam is rehearsing Willie while both are cleaning up the tea room that Hally's family owns. As Sam tells the young master in the rainy evening after closing time, ballroom dance is "like being in a dream about a world in which accidents don't happen ... Nobody trips or stumbles or bumps into anybody else. And it's beautiful because that is what we want life to be like."
Despite such high-flying sentiments, however, this really is just a play about pecking order. We are meant to be shocked and horrified when Hally turns on his lifelong friends and insists they call him "Master Harold." But it is impossible not to see the turnabout coming from the start. This is just the old story about the man who kicks his wife and his wife kicks the dog. When Hally learns that his abusive, alcoholic, racist father is about to be released early from the hospital, the damaged boy turns right around and pulls rank on the class that society has always encouraged him to kick.
So this is not a nice story. Even during the depths of apartheid, however, it was hardly a revelation comparable to those Fugard made in his other works.
And, this time, there is a problem with Hally. Denham, clearly a capable young actor, has been encouraged to bounce off the walls of John Lee Beatty's suitably scrubbed, drab tea-room set as if the boy were preparing for an athletic competition, not his academic exams. Besides seeming too far on the mature side of 17, Denham doesn't have the sweetness or vulnerability that Price brought to the pivotal character.
Michael Boatman, a regular on "Spin City" and "Arli$$," brings an admirable simplicity to Glover’s original role, Willie, the younger man who, although he beats up his dance partner, ultimately becomes Sam's only chance for a world of hope and forgiveness.
For nearly four astonishing decades, New York was graced with a new Fugard play every few years. Ever since "Blood Knot" introduced him to America in 1964, Fugard - a white writer in a black revolution – has made that strange word, apartheid, into a real nightmare for everyone. His messages were urgent - exotic yet unpredictably recognizable – and startling portraits of ordinary people strangled by tentacles of a faraway, yet immediate world. "Master Harold" feels like a footnote to history. At his best, however, Fugard is the real thing.
It's rare that a director has the distinction of overseeing one of Broadway's best and worst productions in less than three months.
Granted, just as one can't blame Lonny Price for the condescending hooey that was Urban Cowboy, the mercifully short-lived musical that arrived in late March, it wouldn't be fair to give him all the credit for the Roundabout Theatre Company's excellent revival of Master Harold ... and the Boys, which opened Sunday at the Royale Theatre.
It's not simply that Athol Fugard's account of a white South African teenager's friendship with his family's black servants in 1950 retains its poignancy and punch. What distinguishes this Master Harold is a pair of robust and perfectly complementary performances — one by a noted veteran, the other by a newcomer whose name audiences will quickly remember.
That dynamic duo would be screen star Danny Glover and recent college graduate Christopher Denham, who manage the tender, tricky interracial relationship at the heart of this play with a balance of tension and empathy, pathos and humor, that could scarcely be improved on.
Both Glover and director Price actually appeared in the first Broadway run of Master Harold in 1982. This time, Glover plays Sam, the more authoritative of the two middle-aged "boys" referred to in the title. Sam and his friend Willie, Glover's original role, both work for 17-year-old Harold's parents, though it is immediately clear that Sam is closer to the young man — previously Price's part, played here by Denham — whom he calls Hally. We soon learn that bond is enhanced and complicated by Hally's feelings about his crippled father, whose problems extend beyond physical limitations.
Sam is a big-hearted, unassuming man, but he is also proud and doesn't suffer gladly the injustices of an apartheid-torn society. When Hally, who has fueled Sam's natural intelligence by giving him some access to the formal education white youths enjoy, tells Sam that every historical era has social reformers, Sam asks, "So where's ours?"
Glover captures the passionate curiosity and fundamental dignity underlying Sam's mild-mannered demeanor, so that when that curiosity is excited or that dignity wounded, we feel the fallout. Conversely, thanks to Denham's precocious, richly textured delivery, we sense the pain that is at first belied by Hally's boyish exuberance. Eventually, that pain creates friction between Hally and Sam, and leads to the confrontation that makes the last third of Master Harold particularly riveting.
Michael Boatman is sweetly affecting as Willie, whose wish to become a skilled ballroom dancer provides a metaphor for the characters' struggles and aspirations. Price guides all three actors with a sure hand, though given the graceful authority they exhibit in dancing with and around each other, I doubt that much choreography was needed here.