The Pershing Square Signature Center
The Irene Diamond Stage
480 West 42nd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Tuesday-Sunday through December 4, $30-$50
South African playwright Athol Fugard revisits a painful part of his past in the Signature Theatre revival of his 1982 success, “Master Harold” . . . and the boys. Inspired by an actual event that continues to cause him shame, the play is set in St. George’s Park Tea Room in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, in 1950, just two years after Apartheid began. It’s a rainy afternoon, and the dapper Sam (Leon Addison Brown) is keeping watch on the empty restaurant while Willie (Sahr Ngaujah) cleans up. They discuss an upcoming ballroom dance competition, as the smooth-moving Sam offers advice to the stiff, distracted Willie. Sam tells him, “The secret is to make it look easy. Ballroom must look happy, Willie, not like hard work. It must . . . Ja! . . . it must look like romance.” Willie responds, “Now another one! What’s romance?” to which Sam answers, “Love story with happy ending. A handsome man in tails, and in his arms, smiling at him, a beautiful lady in evening dress!” They are soon joined by Hally (Noah Robbins), the seventeen-year-old son of the white family they work for as servants. While Willie calls the boy “Master Harold,” Sam refers to him as the more familiar Hally; the two are very close, and Sam is a kind of surrogate father to Hally, since the white boy’s real father is an alcoholic who has been hospitalized. Hally relates how he was beaten by his teacher at school that day, and Sam compares it to getting “strokes with a light cane” in prison. Hally dreams that things will get better. “I oscillate between hope and despair for this world as well, Sam. But things will change, you wait and see,” he says. “One day somebody is going to get up and give history a kick up the backside and get it going again.” Sam asks, “Like who?” Hally replies, “They’re called social reformers. Every age, Sam, has got its social reformer. My history book is full of them.” And Sam answers, “So where’s ours?” Meanwhile, Hally teaches Sam about history and language, discussing Winston Churchill, Napoleon, Charles Darwin, Abraham Lincoln, and William Shakespeare. “Vestiges, feudal system, and abolished. I’m all right on oppression,” Sam says, pointing out some words he doesn’t quite understand, in addition to one he does, all too well. But after Hally gets a call from his mother with news about his father, the relationship between Sam and Hally takes a nasty turn.
“Master Harold” . . . and the boys premiered at Yale in 1982 — it was initially banned in South Africa — with Željko Ivanek as Hally, Zakes Mokae as Sam, and Danny Glover as Willie; it then moved to Broadway with Mokae, Glover, and Lonny Price taking over as Hally, earning a Drama Desk Award as Outstanding New Play. In the 2003 Broadway revival, Christopher Denham was Hally, Michael Boatman was Willie, and Glover played Sam. The new Signature version, directed by the eighty-four-year-old Fugard, is superb in all respects. Christopher H. Barreca’s tea-room set has a lurking coldness, the rain outside threatening a coming storm inside as well. Brown (The Trip to Bountiful, Two Trains Running), who has appeared in two previous Fugard productions at the Signature, is outstanding as the refined and poised Sam, who only wants everyone to be happy and to better his own situation in life, while Ngaujah (Fela!) is effective as his comic foil, a black man who seems content to stay where he is, not rocking any boats. Robbins (Brighton Beach Memoirs, Punk Rock) simmers to a slow boil as Hally, Fugard’s alter-ego — the writer’s real name is Harold Athol Lanigan Fugard, there really was a Sam and Willie, and his mother did run the St. George’s Park Tea Room — leading to an explosive, powerful conclusion. “Master Harold” . . . and the boys is part of the Signature’s Legacy Program; four years ago, Fugard was the inaugural Residency One playwright at their new home, reviving Blood Knot and My Children! My Africa! in addition to premiering The Train Driver and The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek. Fugard and the Signature have brought back “Master Harold” . . . and the boys at an opportune moment, with America in the midst of a presidential election rife with heated arguments over class, race, gender, education, immigration, and the unequal distribution of wealth. Fugard writes and directs with such skill, and with such subtlety, that the play works in many contexts, relating to discrimination of all kinds everywhere, even when it’s a deeply personal tale story that still haunts him today. (There will be a discussion with dialect coach Barbara Rubin prior to the November 9 show, post-show talkbacks with members of the cast and creative team will follow the November 10, 15, and 22 performances, and the Signature Book Club will delve into Fugard’s Cousins: A Memoir on December 1 at 7:30.)