21 November 2016

'"Master Harold" . . . and the boys'

I’ve written a number of times that Athol Fugard taught the world more about conditions in apartheid South Africa with his plays than all the essayists, news reporters, and lecturers combined (see my posts “Degrading the Arts,” published on 13 August 2009; “The Relation of Theater to Other Disciplines,” 21 July 2011; “Culture War,” 6 February 2014).  A prime example of what I mean is Fugard’s fine 1982 composition “Master Harold” . . . and the boys, now in revival at the Signature Theatre under the playwright’s own direction.

The production is part of STC’s Legacy Program for the 2016-17 season, the first under Paige Evans’s artistic directorship.  (Evans took over this year from James Houghton, STC’s founder, when he retired in June.  Houghton died of stomach cancer in August at the age of 57.)  Fugard was the Residency One playwright at Signature for the 2011-12 season, the inaugural STC season at the Pershing Square Signature Center.  The Signature revival of Master Harold started performances on STC’s Irene Diamond Stage, the 294-seat proscenium house, on 18 October and opened on 7 November; it’s currently scheduled to close on 11 December, after two extensions.  (The show’s original closing was 27 November and it was extended once already through 4 December.)  My subscription partner. Diana, and I saw the 7:30 performance on the evening of Wednesday, 9 November.)

“Master Harold” . . . and the boys was first staged at the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, on 9-27 March 1982 by Fugard with Željko Ivanek as Hally, Zakes Mokae as Sam, and Danny Glover as Willie.  When the production moved to Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre, premièring on 4 May 1982 to 26 February 1983 (344 performances), Lonny Price replaced Ivanek as Hally.  The play was revived by the Excaliber Shakespeare Company in Chicago in 1997 and by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in 2005.  Master Harold returned to Broadway for 49 performances in 2003, staged by Lonny Price with Glover switching to the role of Sam.

Originally banned from production in South Africa, the play premièred at Fugard’s Market Theatre in Johannesburg on 22 March 1983, once again directed by the author.  The production, whose opening night audience included such luminaries as Nobel Prize-winning novelist  Nadine Gordimer and Bishop Desmond Tutu, winner of the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize, left many in its audience in tears.  In 2012, Master Harold was revived in Fugard’s native land and again in 2013 in Afrikaans (translated by Idil Sheard as Master Harold en die Boys).  The Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada, staged the play in the summer of 2016.

In 1985, Showtime, the cable TV network, and the Public Broadcasting System televised an adaptation of the play by Fugard, directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg with Matthew Broderick as Hally, Zakes Mokae as Sam, and John Kani as Willie.  Lonny Price helmed a South African film production based on a screenplay by Nicky Rebello in  2010 starring Freddie Highmore as Hally and Ving Rhames as Sam; the film opened up the play considerably, adding many characters who never appear on stage, including Hally’s parents. 

Master Harold takes place in 1950, one year after the passage of the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act in the Union of South Africa (the Republic was declared in 1961), and the year the Population Registration Act, the Group Areas Act, and the Suppression of Communism Act were passed, the first legal mechanisms formalizing what Prime Minister D. F. Malan, elected in 1948 by the white minority who alone were allowed to vote, called apartheid, the policy of “separateness,” that prevailed until 1994.  (In my report on Fugard’s Blood Knot, 28 February 2012, I included a brief history of apartheid.)  The play is set in Port Elizabeth, a coastal city 550 miles south of Johannesburg where three-year-old Harold Athol Lanigan Fugard moved with his family from his birthplace in Middleburg, 215 miles north. The play is largely autobiographical, down to the characters’ names: young Fugard was, indeed, called Hally as a boy and his family’s employees in the St. George’s Park Tea Room were Sam Semela and Willie Malopo, who became his friends and his teachers.  At the age of 17, Hally is seeing the world around him change just as he’s growing from a boy into a man, and he reflects the changes in his country; “Master Harold” . . . and the boys is both the story of Athol Fugard’s coming of age, and of South Africa’s as well: Hally is both the young playwright and his native land, both on the cusp of destiny. 

The characters and events of this play reflect the people and events of South Africa—but the play’s characters are also actual people from Fugard’s past dealing with circumstances that actually happened to them in their lives.  I’ll be addressing this more in a bit, but one of the things that I think makes Fugard such a marvelous playwright and makes his depictions of social and political themes (that is, apartheid and its repercussions) so engaging is that he makes them universal topics that speak to people far beyond South Africa, and he makes them personal—or personalized—issues rather than socio-political theses. As Nathaniel French, Signature Theatre Company literary associate, put it in an interview with the dramatist, “For more than 50 years, . . . Athol Fugard has challenged the world’s conscience with his incisive portraits of individuals grappling with the intimate repercussions of systemic injustice.”  This quality was first evident in 1961’s Blood Knot (revived at Signature in 2012) and continued throughout Fugard’s long career.  As with the characters in his other plays, Hally, Sam, and Willie aren’t metaphors or allegories, they’re real people—not least because they, in fact, are real people—who address real problems on a human and personal scale.  That’s why I say Fugard’s plays are more powerful as consciousness-raisers and instructors than reports and essays: he makes them touch us with his humanity.

“Master Harold” . . . and the boys shows how the institutionalized racism, bigotry, and hatred of apartheid (and, by extension, Jim Crow and its echoes) can become absorbed by those on both sides of the divide who live under it.  As “Hally” Fugard grew into a young man, the Union of South Africa began building its brutal racist regime of apartheid, the Afrikaans word for “apartness.”  Fugard absorbed the entitlement afforded him by his white skin.  His father, who was disabled by a childhood injury and needed crutches to get around, was also a drunk and it frequently fell to his young son, with Sam’s help, to retrieve him from the local saloon.  Though Fugard learned a love of music and stories from his father, the man was also a typical South African racist, the playwright has said; it was his mother who taught him a sense of justice.  Fugard also developed lifelong friendships with two of the black men who worked for his mother in the Jubilee Boarding House and later the St. George’s Park Tea Room, Sam Semela and Willie Malopo.  Sam, in fact, “was the father I wanted, a decent, good man, generous, full of laughter, caring . . .,” recalled the playwright.  “But how can a white boy in the apartheid years have a black man as a surrogate father?” he wondered.  On rainy days, when no one came to use the park, Sam and Fugard discussed literature, science, history, culture, philosophy, and the passage from childhood into manhood.  Once when Fugard was embarrassed by his father’s frequent public drunkenness, it was Sam who cheered him up by putting together a homemade kite and teaching the boy to fly it to provide him with an accomplishment of which he could be proud.  “I ended up sitting holding the string and admiring my kite, but Sam couldn’t sit down because, by a very brutal irony of South Africa, there was a sign: ‘Whites Only.’”  One afternoon, after the two argued, Fugard spat in Sam’s face.  In a moment, everything changed between them and that act haunted Fugard for decades. 

Thirty years later, the dramatist wrote “Master Harold” . . . and the boys out of that experience, incorporating in the drama all the confusion, helplessness, and misplaced anger Hally feels.  “That little schoolboy in the tearoom on that rainy afternoon when his company is the two black servants who work in the tearoom,” explained Fugard, “that whole setting comes directly from my youth.”  He’d been trying to compose a play about Sam and Willie, “two men [who] were so important in my life that I just felt a need to somehow celebrate them in a play.”  But the playwright “couldn’t find the element that created the drama, the tension and the demand for resolution that theatre usually involves.”  He started to think about writing Master Harold because it gave him “a chance to publicly reckon with one of the most disgraceful moments in my private life, which is when I spat in Sam’s face.”  “‘My God, you’ve got a lot to answer for, Master Harold,’” Fugard thought. “And suddenly I put Master Harold into the equation with Sam and Willie, and like Einstein I ended with E=MC2.”  But he “feels as if somebody else wrote that play, not myself,” and when literary associate French suggested he wrote Master Harold with Sam Semela, the dramatist responded enthusiastically, “That’s correct, that’s correct.  That’s really not a bad way of putting it!”

At the start of the play, it is, indeed, raining, and Willie is practicing ballroom steps for a major competition.  (The choreography is by Peter Pucci.)  In between chores to close up the tea room for the day, Sam, the more sophisticated of the men, is coaching him.  Uneducated, Sam is wise in the ways of the human soul—and smart enough to understand—and remember—just about anything Hally explains to him from his schoolbooks.  When 17-year-old Hally arrives after school, he sets about doing his homework and the bantering among the three begins.  Hally’s intelligent enough to see that something serious is about to happen to his world and he’s innately good enough to be concerned.  The young man learns that his mother has gone to the hospital where his sick father is interned and soon she calls to say she’ll be bringing him home that afternoon.  Hally has always had a conflicted and chilly relationship with his father.  Bitter and distraught, Hally, misdirecting his anger at his father, lashes out at Sam, who’s tried to help the young man accept his father even with his failings.  Hally tells a crude, racist joke and demands that Sam no longer call him “Hally” but “Master Harold.”  (Willie has always called the young man “Master Hally.”)  Sam warns the young man that this will be a step he can’t take back once made—it will alter everything.  Then Hally spits in Sam’s face and leaves the tea room.  As the play ends, Sam and Willie dance together to the music of the tea room’s juke box, hoping things are “going to be okay tomorrow.” 

(A word about that ballroom dancing which frames the play:  It became a popular and important outlet for creativity and pleasure for black South Africans even before apartheid was formalized.  Having caught on in the country among the European settlers as early as the 17th century, it began to be opened up to even working-class white South Africans by the 20th century, greatly inspired by U.S. culture, especially the movies of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.  Blacks, though, were still excluded, by both laws and by economics.  So black South Africans started their own dance events, including competitions, in the segregated townships in which they were required to live.  Dance parties and clubs were oases of pleasure and a kind of freedom of spirit that was denied them in their everyday lives, particularly once the racial laws establishing apartheid as the governing principle of the land were enacted.  As Fugard, a ballroom champion himself when he was a boy, explains the attraction: “It was just the music, the fact that you moved your body through space while beautiful music was filling your ears.“  In the play, when Hally asks, “For God’s sake, Sam, you’re not asking me to take ballroom dancing serious, are you?” Sam responds, “There’s no collisions out there, Hally.  Nobody trips or stumbles or bumps into anybody else.  That’s what that moment is all about.”  Soon, ballroom dancing became a distinctive part of the black culture of South Africa in a similar sense to township music, introduced to the U.S. with the success of Paul Simon’s 1986 fusion album, Graceland.)

Diana found “Master Harold” . . . and the boys talky, but I find it less a talk play than, say, Oslo or New Jerusalem (see my reports on 13 August 2016 and 20 April 2014, respectively).  There isn’t a lot of “action” in Master Harold, but there’s considerable “activity” (including the ballroom dancing).  The talk is largely conversation, not all lecture and point-making (though there’s some of that, too).  Further, Oslo and New Jerusalem are dissertations, one on Middle East politics and the other on philosophy (Spinozan) and theology; Master Harold disguises the political and social themes Fugard’s presenting as a relationship between Hally (who, beside being Fugard, is also the embodiment of the emerging South African nation) and Sam and Willie (the black South African people).  It’s actually quite interesting and even clever, from a dramaturgical point of view.  It must have been really startling in the 1980s, when apartheid was in full swing—especially in its South African première in ‘83.  (Frank Rich wrote in the New York Times: “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.”)

I think some of the appeal of Master Harold despite the lack of action—at least to me—is that apartheid, especially as Fugard presents it, in the guise of three ordinary people, is a more visceral topic than the excommunication of Baruch Spinoza in New Jerusalem or the development of the Oslo Accords (which ultimately failed).  As Newsday’s Linda Winer put it, “Fugard has taken people from very far away and made their lives so real that they resound beyond the impersonal facts of distant news stories.”  It’s a little like Arthur Miller presenting the McCarthy commie witch-hunts in the guise of the Salem witch trials in The Crucible by presenting real, ordinary people instead of historical bold-face names.  And just as the implications of McCarthyism and the threat of a HUAC continue to be relevant long after the 1950s, the effects of institutionalized racism and the essence of apartheid still impact us today, even here in the Unites States and even after the official policy has been dismantled in South Africa. 

Unlike any of these other plays, though, Master Harold at base is about the most supreme human characteristic.  As Fugard puts it: “You know, I spat in Sam’s face and Sam forgave me.”  Then he expands that point: “But I think, in essence, what Sam demonstrates—what Sam gives us hope for—is love.  How big love can be.”  That makes “Master Harold” . . . and the boys redemptive—and I think that’s what makes the play irresistibly compelling.  Hally has committed a repulsive act; he seems to be taking on the racist characteristics of the South African nation as inexorably as the characters of Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros turn into beasts.  But we know that in the real world, young Hally Fugard becomes adult Athol Fugard, a fighter for justice and equality—and that racist South Africa ultimately throws off its apartheid mantle and, its continuing hardships notwithstanding, constitutes a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to ease the transition with, if not exactly universal love, then at least tolerance and less bitterness and recrimination.  Sam’s “act of forgiveness,” which Fugard sees as “a lesson of which this world is still so in need,” may have made its impact at least a little.

The production of Master Harold, which runs an hour and 40 minutes without intermission, is excellent, and I found it a compelling play.  Diana and I both had some trouble with the very thick (though authentic-sounding) South African accents, however.  I think Fugard and dialect coach Barbara Rubin overdid it for an American audience.  Nonetheless, the performances are stellar.  The easy camaraderie between  Leon Addison Brown’s Sam  and Sahr Ngaujah’s Willie  set the tone of the production and its depiction of the three-character relationship.  Fugard has worked as director-playwright with both actors before, Brown in The Train Driver (2012 at Signature) and The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek (2015 world première at STC), and Ngaujah in Painted Rocks.  (I saw both these productions—reports are on 20 September 2012 and 3 July 2015, respectively—though Ngaujah had left Painted Rocks due to injury by the time I saw it.  I did see Ngaujah in María Irene Fornés’s Drowning, part of the Signature Plays this past spring, reported in ROT on 3 June  2016, and he’s best known for his performance in the title role in Fela! on Broadway in 2009-11 for which he received a Theatre World Award as well as Drama Desk and Tony nominations.  Among Brown’s other credits are August Wilson’s Two Trains Running, 2006, and Horton Foote’s Orphans’ Home Cycle, 2010, both at STC; the report on OHC was posted on 25 and 28 February 2010, but there is no report on Two Trains because it predates ROT.)

Fugard says that he’s worked with some of the same actors multiple times because “we begin to understand each other more and I begin to understand how to challenge them. . . .  If I’ve got the actors that can rise to the challenge, I use them again and again.”  He spoke specifically of Brown, but the comfort these artists have developed from working together so many times is evident in the performances of Sam and Willie here.  (It certainly helps, of course, how lovingly the author portrayed the men in the script and no doubt he added to that background during the rehearsals.)  Sam is the more worldly of the men, and Brown demonstrates that in the older-brotherliness with which he treats Willie as he guides his coworker through his dance steps.  At the same time, Sam can be almost pupil-like with Hally when it comes to academic subjects even as he takes the part of surrogate father in matters of behavior and character.  When Hally becomes enraged with him for what ought to seem like a triviality—it isn’t to Hally, of course—Brown is downright gentle, almost zen-like (though neither he not Hally would have been likely to know that philosophy in 1950 South Africa, I wouldn’t imagine), seeing what’s coming.  Even after Hally spits in his face, Brown’s Sam holds firm but dignified, sympathetic but worried what Hally’s act might portend.

Willie, for all his callow boyishness, is still a complex man.  His insouciant manner at work and his preoccupation with dancing, which add some humor to the play, make him seem feckless, but we know that he has a violent streak, especially against women.  Ngaujah wisely doesn’t play this dark aspect of the character—it’s just there: we know it, Sam knows it, but Hally probably doesn’t.  If Sam and Willie are reflections of black South Africans under apartheid, this is the roiling dangerous element that’s building up.  Ngaujah threads this needle very neatly; though his Willie is the one who consistently plays the subordinate to Hally’s young master, he’s also the one who presents the potential, if unseen, threat. 

The newcomer to this ensemble is Noah Robbins, the 26-year-old actor from Potomac, Maryland, who made such an impression on reviewers and audiences alike for his portrayal of Eugene Jerome in the Broadway revival of Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs in 2009.  A youthful-looking 19 then (the character is 15 in the play), just out of a Washington, D.C., prep school, Robbins has clearly deepened and broadened his capabilities.  (Coincidentally, his role in Brighton Beach was originally played by Matthew Broderick—who also played Hally in the TV movie version of Master Harold.)  His Hally is the epitome of a boy about to become a man, a little too smart for his britches but at the same time slightly awed by the maturity and wisdom of the older Sam.  I could feel the conflict between his innate character, the boy who loves and respects Sam and Willie and relies on Sam for life’s guidance he can’t get from his father, and the new-born young man of a new South Africa where he’s the designated master by virtue not of any superior accomplishments, but of his birth.  All gangly and willowy, Robbins can shift from adolescent braggadocio to mean-spirited haughtiness and back again without seeming to shift gears.  The balance is delicate, but the actor pulls it off cleanly.  (Hally is in danger of being perceived as a supremacist bully in the making, but the presence of Brown’s Sam helped me greatly to keep in perspective what I discerned was happening within the boy.  Knowing the developments beyond the confines of the tea room, though they’re not part of the play’s text, also informed my judgment.)  Robbins makes Hally’s sense guilt over the spitting incident, mixed with his remaining anger and confusion, palpable,

As director, Fugard fosters the interrelationships among the three characters and he clearly knows not only what he wants—he should, of course—but how to get it from the actors.  (This is where it becomes an advantage for a playwright to stage his own works, though I have often complained about this decision.  Fugard seems to be an exception—Horton Foote was another—to my caveat against playwright-directors.  There’s also a demonstration here of a director who’s worked with certain actors before gaining a benefit from that familiarity as well.)  Fugard is also able, because he understands this material—both the crafted play and the socio-historical grounding—so intimately, to avoid the blatant exposure of the action’s underpinnings and stage only the core truth.  He knows what to trust and what needs showing so that the performance becomes more natural and real and, as a consequence, more touching and revealing. 

Christopher H. Barreca’s tea room set is not quite cozy but also not cold or forbidding—like, perhaps, South Africa on the verge of a new regime which hasn’t quite taken permanent hold yet.  The torrential rain outside the big picture window, portentous as it is in its power to drive everyone away from the tea room, also adds an element of gloom inside the restaurant, isolating it from the rest of the world, a little like Edward Hopper’s 1942 Nighthawks, except with the dark street viewed from inside the lighted diner instead of the other way ’round.  Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting, of course, shares the credit for creating this image (along with whoever was responsible for the rain effects).  John Gromada’s sound design, principally the jukebox music to which Willie practices his ballroom dancing, and Susan Hilferty’s costumes add to the complete authenticity of the little tea room’s increasingly fraught atmosphere.

Show-Score tallied 23 notices (as of 20 November) for the Signature Theatre Company’s revival of Master Harold and reported that 100% were positive.  The average score was 86; the survey’s highest rating was 95 (there were 2, the websites The Clyde Fitch Report and Front Row Center; there was also nine 90’s); Show-Score’s lowest rating was a single 70 (WNBC-TV), with two 75’s.  (My round-up will cover 14 notices.) 

Declaring the revival of Master Harold at Signature a “sterling new production,” the New York Times’ Christopher Isherwood affirmed that “this quiet drama remains a powerful indictment of the apartheid system and the terrible human cost of the racism it codified and legalized.”  The play, one of Fugard’s “most celebrated and popular,” is “directed with care by” the author and “remains a powerful indictment of the apartheid system and the terrible human cost of the racism it codified and legalized.”  Matt Windman of am New York described Master Harold as “no doubt the finest play written by” Fugard and pronounced the Signature revival “excellent.”  “Intimate and tightly constructed, sharply political and emotionally bruising, autobiographical yet universal, despairing but with a glimmer of hope,” Windman characterized the play, and like several other reviewers found relevance in our current politics: “Following an election season where personal frustrations inspired disturbing manifestations of racial and ethnic prejudice, the play is quite pertinent today.  But even if that were not the case, it would still pack a strong punch simply because it is a masterful and accessible piece of writing.”  In Long Island’s Newsday, Linda Winer’s “Bottom Line” on Master Harold was: “Beautiful and upsetting Fugard revival,” which she described full of “youthful power.”  With “a magnificent cast,” the play unfolds through “leisurely storytelling, deceptively complex humanity and grounded simplicity.”

The “Goings On About Town” column of the New Yorker called Master Harold “a classic slow burn” in which the “atmosphere remains so light and casual for so long that considerable tension accrues around the question of how the interaction will inevitably explode.”  The New Yorker reviewer added, “It is depressing to recognize, in this moment of emboldened white nationalism, that the play is not as much a museum piece from the other side of the world as we might have fooled ourselves into believing it was exactly eight years ago.”  Jesse Green, while calling the Signature revival “powerful,” observed in New York magazine that the play “may seem like small potatoes compared with the repression, poverty, and denial of liberty that the apartheid system enforced on millions.”  He continued that one problem with the play is “that its first two-thirds are taken up with the slow, careful setting of what seems to be a purely domestic trap.”  Fugard “springs the trap” in the last third of the play when Hally gets the news of his father’s return and “what has sometimes seemed a bit desultory and kitchen-sinkish, with a lacy overlay of pretty imagery involving kites and quicksteps, becomes gripping and then devastating.”  But Green complained that the author’s work contains “a stolid resistance to theatricality in favor of moral seriousness” and that sometimes “you might wish for more imaginative direction.”  Nonetheless, concluded the man from New York, Master Harold’s “representation of a world in a tearoom is at least as astonishing an achievement as the inscribing of a bible on the head of a pin.  And more piercing, probably.”  (Like some others, Green appended a remark reminding us of Master Harold’s contemporary relevance, lamenting that “South Africa in 1950 . . . was not the only place or time on Earth when black lives didn’t seem to matter.”)

In the Hollywood Reporter, Frank Scheck reported in his “Bottom Line”: “This superbly staged and acted revival reveals that the apartheid-set drama has lost none of its power.”  Calling Master Harold Fugard’s “masterwork,” Scheck affirmed that it “may take place in South Africa during the early years of apartheid, but its depiction of the ways in which people are capable of hurting even those they love transcends the political landscape of bigotry and oppression that inspired it.”  A “deeply moving and powerful . . . play,” reported the HR reviewer, Master Harold “is now receiving an emotionally pitch-perfect revival.”  He noted, “Very little of dramatic importance occurs during much of the play's running time,” requiring “patience during its lengthy, meandering build-up, before reaching its emotionally devastating conclusion.”  Scheck concluded that “it's worth the time,” however, and seeing it under Fugard’s direction “represents a privilege not to be missed.”  David Cote of Time Out New York made a rather unusual comparison to demonstrate his assessment of the play:

Athol Fugard’s 1982 apartheid drama is a little like Mass for lazy Catholics:  Technically speaking, you only have to show up for Eucharist (the blessing of bread and wine) to stay saved.  In “Master Harold” . . . and the boys, that means perking up when teen Afrikaner Harold . . . turns on his friends (and de facto employees) Sam . . . and Willie . . ., lashing out at them with privileged contempt.  

The rest of the play, asserted the man from TONY, “is exposition, backstory and windup” despite “[r]ichly detailed acting and Fugard’s solid direction” which “make the journey . . . fairly engaging.”   

On TheaterMania, Zachary Stewart reported that Fugard’s revival of Master Harold “pulls out all the technical stops . . . while employing some top-notch actors to perform his drama of soft bigotry and the lost promise of change.”  He labeled the production “a beautifully rendered yet somewhat sleepy revival . . . which feels unfortunately diminished amid its own grandiosity.”  The author’s “steady direction” brings the play to an “emotional climax at a slow boil . .  but the necessarily nuanced performances occasionally drown in the cavernous Diamond Theater.”  The TM review-writer concluded, “Still, those looking for a traditional and well-acted production of Fugard’s masterpiece won’t be disappointed.”  Ann Firestone Ungar of New York Theatre Guide pronounced the Signature revival of Master Harold “a mighty play given a mighty production.”  The playwright “has directed with perfect attention to detail” so that the “attention to realism . . . is gripping because of its truth.”  The NYTG reviewer recommended “without reservation” the “moving work of art,” which she dubbed “flawless.” 

“Master Harold” . . . and the boys “pulses with a terrible beauty,” declared Deirdre Donovan on CurtainUp.  Directing “impeccably,” Fugard lets “the Beckett-like simplicity of his play be its strong suit.”  The CU reviewer explained, “She trusts to its spare language, vividly-limned characters, and the tableaus of the racial hate.”  (Though Donovan had high praise for all three actors, she, too, had some problems with the South African dialects.)  Broadway World’s Michael Dale labeled the Signature revival of Fugard’s play “excellent” and reported, “There is little action in the play, but a lot of thought.”  Dale asserted, “In a sense, ‘MASTER HAROLD’ . . . AND THE BOYS becomes a sad twist on the typical coming-of-age story.” 

Matthew Murray warned on Talkin’ Broadway, “You might experience a bit of an initial shock at how shocking the Signature Theatre revival of ‘Master Harold’ . . . and the boys . . . is not.”  He explained:

After all, Athol Fugard’s play is known for eliciting gasps, recoils, and even jumps when it hits its climax.  And though this production, which the playwright has directed, is good at generating horrified silences gaping enough to swallow Manhattan whole, those more stunned and stunning reactions are not to be found. 

Murray contended, though, that “even if it’s lost some of its ability to surprise” due to changes in the world since its début, Fugard’s play “has not lost any of its power.”  Of his themes, Murray asserted, “Fugard attacks the topic so thoroughly and so bracingly that it remains astonishing that he does so with such sensitivity and beauty.“  On Theater Pizzazz, Martha Wade Steketee affirmed that Master Harold “feels devastatingly current and resonant in today’s America” even as Fugard “directs and conducts the breathtaking hairpin turns in the dialogue rhythms that lull us into revelations of internalized socialized roles, routines, and expectations in apartheid South Africa.”

Robert Kahn of WNBC-TV, the NBC network outlet in New York City, called Master Harold “still-resonant” and reported that Fugard directed “an elegant revival” at Signature.  With praise for the cast, especially Brown and Ngaujah, Kahn had some reservations about Robbins’s portrayal: “Hally is never very likable, coming off as a young Napoleon from the start. Because his Hally is such a brat, the play is denied a larger sense of any escalating ferocity within the boy.”  In sum, however, the WNBC reviewer said, “Fugard’s drama is slow to unreel, but builds to a confrontation audiences will find absorbing.”

[Athol Fugard’s Legacy production of “Master Harold” . . . and the boys at the Signature Theatre Company was one of the last decisions made by STC’s founding artistic director, James Houghton, who stepped down in June and died in August.  He had offered Fugard a “New York theatre home” at Signature where many of the South African’s plays have been presented over the seasons.  The dramatist confessed that “it is incredibly sad for me that Jim will not be in the audience in person to see [Master Harold] come alive on his stage.”  In the program for Master Harold, Fugard wrote:

When Jim Houghton approached me a year ago about including “Master Harold” . . . and the boys in the last season that he would program as Founding Artistic Diector of Signature Theatre, I immediately knew I wanted to do it.  Not only because I wanted to make his every wish come true, insofar as it was in my power, but also because it was yet another instance of Jim’s uncanny  ability to match the needs of his theatre with the needs of his playwrights.  I could not think of a better way to celebrate 50-odd years of playwriting.  Jim, this one’s for you.]

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