Master Harold bound to set you thinking
The Roundabout Theatre Companys new staging of Athol Fugards drama Master Harold ... and the boys.
Royale Theatre, Broadway
Previews started on 6 May
The production opens officially on June 1, for a limited run until July 13
Directed by Lonny Price
Paranoia disclaimer #1: It isnt typical for a show to be reviewed by ANYONE until it has had its official opening night. The performance I saw was a preview and I will openly admit that right now, up front. (Though since I dont work for the New York Times, who cares, right?!)
Port Elizabeth in 1950 had more in common with Atlanta, Georgia, in 1950 than one might ever want to admit. Change the setting and give the characters a Southern accent and its just as much a play concerned with civil rights in the USA. Its actually difficult to imagine how so much of the world can change and at the same time how much of it can stay exactly the same. Athol Fugards Master Harold ... and the boys is as appealing today as it might have been when first produced in New York City over twenty years ago. One has heard the play described as anti-apartheid, anti-racist propaganda, and heard it accused in some quarters of personalising racism and avoiding confrontation with its systemic, societal qualities.
Does this make for good drama? Of course it does. Would I go so far as to call it propaganda? One would only need to look at the state of racial affairs in the USA to answer that. Sadly, it would seem to this writer that the same presentation was made in South Africa as in the United States.
One country changed its ways drastically, and the other applauded its open-mindedness and didnt change a damn thing. I wont say which was which, and Ill get off that soap box now before I hurt myself.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that, in addition to Danny Glover, who originated the role of Willie on Broadway back in 1982, Lonny Price was also returning to this story, not as a performer but as director of this current revival. Mr Price originally took on the role of Hally, but he has since moved into directing with this revival and, additionally, the current production of the ill-reviewed musical Urban Cowboy plodding along actually more like slouching towards the Tony Awards with a few nominations everybody knows it wont win. Yet, with this production of Master Harold it appears that there are a few redeeming directorial qualities in Mr Price, even if the musical medium isnt particularly suited to making use of them!
With actors as seasoned as Danny Glover, one would be hard-pressed to gauge how much of his style and arresting stage presence comes from the years of experience and how much from a skilful director. As much as I would love to give credit to both, it does appear that Mr Glover is alone in this production as he moves through his performance with an air Im not likely to see again in this role. Though it is only a three-character play with no intermission (running for approximately 1 hour 40 minutes), one finds that it is impossible not to give full attention to Sams nuggets of life lessons and expressions, from start to finish.
This emphasis inadvertently placed on the character of Sam does seem to detract from the overall effect of the ensemble. Michael Boatman as Willie does his best to act and react to the confrontations of Sam and Hally, but I attribute this to a choice made not by the actor nor the director, but by the writer. Mr Fugard seems to have created Willie as a character to act solely as a witness to the conflict between the others, so it is a tough place to be as an actor when one is expected to spend the bulk of ones time on stage RE-acting to everything.
Christopher Denham as Hally (a first-time Broadway performer and author of two books to boot!) is adequate, to say the least. I would have wanted to award points for his energy, as it seemed as though there were times he was honestly plugged into something as he darted about the stage, but this distracted me no end at times when I would have loved simply to listen for a moment. His direction from Mr Price could possibly have something to do with this, as well as his range of two vocal levels: talking and shouting. However, this is not as bad as it might seem. Lest we forget, Hally is only in his teens, and the behaviour suits the character well, especially during the phone conversations with his mother and father and his growing agitation with Sam, who can see all too easily the misapplied rage Hally suffers.
Of course, with every Broadway production we get the gratuitous moment where one cringes or is embarrassed to be there. Sometimes its just annoying audience members who cant stop talking about the commute back to Hoboken, or some twit with a mobile phone he cant ever seem to shut off. In this particular performance it was the moment where Sam exposes his buttocks to Hally as the baseline exposure of himself and insult to his situation. People in the audience nervously tittered and then applauded, though I cant say why they did, beyond any reasonable doubt. I can only say that from the mood that was perfectly conveyed by the direction of the scene and the performances of the actors, the giggling and applause were most ill-timed. Who could say? Perhaps the arse is just too much for a matinée audience to handle after theyre already being asked to put some larger issues to thought.
I do recommend to anyone to go and see this especially if youve only ever read the play before and VERY especially if youve only ever seen the televised version with Matthew Broderick as Hally. Id forgotten how much more Master Harold was about human interaction than about propaganda. And where else would you get to see Danny Glover glide through his performance like so much ballroom dancing?
Ticket prices being what they are on Broadway these days, it is tough on revivals of this sort. Its not a big glitzy musical, its not written by Neil Simon, and its not going to give you the When Harry Met Sally warm fuzzies. It will make you think. I have some hope for the future of Broadway when there are still producers who recognise the need to take a second look at plays such as Master Harold.
Jonathan Polansky (no relation to Roman) is a playwright living in New York City and studying Theatre History part time, while pretending to care about his day job, which performance should one of these days earn him an acting award.
A staged reading of Profitstown USA, a play by Jonathan Polanksy, is taking place at 15:00 on Thursday, May 22. It is directed by Michael Cruz Sullivan. The venue is The Mint Theatre, Floor 5, 311 West 43 Street, between 8th and 9th Avenues, New York City. The reading is open to the public and is free.
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