I’ve been critical of the Roundabout Theatre Company of late-to put it mildly. It’s a pleasure to report how right they’ve got it this time, however, with a first-rate revival of Athol Fugard’s shattering elegy to bigotry and a young man’s coming of age, Master Harold … and the Boys.
The emotional impact of the original production I saw in 1982 was simply tremendous. It made one feel ashamed. Set in 1950’s South Africa, the apartheid system-the subject of so many of Mr. Fugard’s finest humane dramas-was still in place. Today, Master Harold, directed by Lonny Price and starring the magnetic Danny Glover, hasn’t become the period piece I’d feared. It still speaks to us stunningly of terrible things that should not be, of a world of masters and servants, of dreams of justice and hopes ruined. But the major achievement of the production is to make the heart of the play-and Mr. Fugard has a huge heart-live again completely in the present.
The South African playwright has been the dramatic conscience of his country’s agony for a generation and more, but the new production proves-if proof were needed-that Master Harold transcends its apartheid setting to become the moral conscience of us all. Mr. Fugard isn’t a political playwright. He’s a storyteller whose morality plays-always modest at center-make him an artist of compelling integrity and compassion. Master Harold is a story of three men that creeps up gradually on you, however, to overwhelm you.
One suspects the autobiographical in Mr. Fugard’s 17-year-old white schoolboy, Hally (who possesses writerly ambitions). If so, it’s a self-lacerating portrait of an insecure brat’s road to manhood. The role is usually played more sympathetically than newcomer Christopher Denham plays it. But his modern, unsentimental interpretation of a surly, resentful Hally makes more dangerous sense of the waywardness of adolescence. The sight of his Hally crushed in the end with shame at his own horrible spite takes nothing away from the heartbreak of him.
It’s fair to assume that the director, Mr. Price, knows what he’s doing: He played Hally in the original 80’s production. Danny Glover was in the original cast, too-as affable Willie, who wants to learn ballroom dancing (now played by the excellent Michael Boatman). Mr. Glover now plays Sam, the older man and substitute father-figure to Hally. The story takes place at the tea room owned by Hally’s parents, where the two black men are servants.
It would have been mundane for Mr. Glover to play Sam with a kind of saintly passivity. He’s giving a much more fascinating performance than that, and it touches greatness by living up to the memory of Zakes Mokae, who played the original role. The rock-like center of Mr. Glover’s towering portrait of Sam amounts to the modesty of true wisdom. Taught to write by the troubled Hally, who’s loved Sam since childhood, the “servant” knows far more than his “master.” Sam knows how to set him free.
It’s why the tragic resolution of Master Harold is so harrowing. There was a chance . There was the simple hope that race and the belittling arrogance of authority don’t matter a damn in the face of human decency.
I was relating the story of Master Harold to a friend who was about to see the play, and when I came to “And then, everything changed between Sam and the boy,” she yelled, “Stop! Don’t tell me!” I take it, then, that it’s best not to give the plot a way-a tribute to Mr. Fugard’s storytelling. He loads the dice a bit, even so. Hally’s own hated father is a cripple and abusive drunk, his mother weak. The play’s parables and metaphors are sometimes underlined, too. “Are we never going to get it right?” asks Sam. “Learn to dance life like champions instead of always being just a bunch of beginners at it?”
And yet, within its unapologetic, elemental simplicity, the wrenching play works seamlessly. Its few flaws are why Master Harold ranks just below the highest peaks as a near-great play (which is memorably good enough). You must see it if you can, though Mr. Fugard-and Mr. Glover-will surely break your heart.
Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Vinci
The one thing I dislike most in theater, or anywhere, is pretentiousness. Aristotle would concur with that, I fancy. But I must say, about my disappointment in Mary Zimmerman’s revival of her 1994 The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci at the Second Stage, that pretension is only the half of it. She’s managed to make the genius of da Vinci, who sits at the right hand of God, look silly.
It takes chutzpah to do it, but that’s what she’s done. Her small troupe is pleasant and talented, but Ms. Zimmerman has overreached with this stew of old avant-garde ideas and misplaced surrealism. The idea is to bring to life da Vinci’s racing thoughts on the secrets of the universe, on God, love, science, art, everything. But the last thing da Vinci’s notebooks are is Magritte. If that were so, Magritte would be da Vinci. But surrealism is a dead-end avant-garde cliché in itself, like hanging upside-down for random arty effect, reciting a garble of languages to moody music, or walking solemnly in slow motion during dream sequences, as Ms. Zimmerman’s game troupe does.
The set is comprised mostly of filing cabinets that hide … tricks . The drawers might produce a bird cage, a body or a field. But at best, such tricksiness reduces da Vinci to the merely eccentric or odd . At worst, we’re in a lecture hall with illustrations acted out for us. But either Ms. Zimmerman’s images simply don’t begin to illustrate da Vinci’s text or, with only one or two exceptions, they’re lame.
Reference to da Vinci’s prototype flying machine, for example, is accompanied by the joke of a cartoon bird unable to fly; his spoken notes on the dissection of bodies have the mundane literalism of a woman simultaneously being “dissected” on an operating table; mention of a penis sparks coy, campy outrage from one of the guys; the show’s ultimate stage picture illustrating da Vinci on perspective takes an eternity to fussily set up with a play-school crayon session, lots of string and frigid poses.
Ms. Zimmerman’s more successful Metamorphoses , her myths lite in a swimming pool, was gloriously silly, I thought, and it had its subconscious, watery pleasures. Da Vinci lite, pretentious and juvenile isn’t such good news. I’m afraid Ms. Zimmerman’s recycled images in Notebooks of Leonardo aren’t a testament to the vitality of the avant-garde, but to its tiredness.
Let me close this week with at least a mention of a hero of the American avant-garde, Joseph Chaikin, who died at the age of 67 on June 22. This innovative, immensely modest director was a leading interpreter of the greatest poet of despair who ever half-lived, Beckett, and a close collaborator of Sam Shepard, a longtime friend. His Open Theatre introduced the impertinent, sexy joys of the New York avant-garde to a hungry, astonished London in the mid-60’s. I got to know Joe a little then, and better when he later joined Peter Brook’s troupe in its earliest days in Paris to watch the work for a while. I remember him sitting cross-legged on a carpet-as was the uncomfortable custom- trying not to laugh.
He couldn’t help it. Mr. Brook’s experimental work is often accompanied by whispered High Seriousness, and one day, during one of the more lunatic improvisations, I glanced at Joe to see how he was doing. He was trying so hard not to laugh, he was biting his hands. But then-O sacrilege!-the dam burst. “Sorry,” he apologized, which only made his giggles uncontrollably worse. “Gee, I’m sorry …. “
Whenever I bumped into Joe over the years, he’d smile warmly at the memory, as if sharing a happy secret. Apart from his great gifts, he was always the nicest of men.