Writer and director Athol Fugard has the amazing ability to take a limited situation and pack so much drama into it that a far larger picture emerges. He has repeatedly demonstrated this with his searing takes on racism in South Africa. He does it to perfection in “‘Master Harold’…and the Boys,” set in a tea room in 1950 in the provincial South African town of Port Elizabeth. By the time the revival, presented by the Signature Theatre, is over we have been served a moving composite of race and class.
Two key characters are Sam, brilliantly played by Leon Addison Brown, a long-time servant in the tea room, and Willie, the excellent Sahr Ngaujah, an assistant handling the menial chores. Both are black. There is initially quite a bit of humor as Willie practices dance steps and Sam tries to help him and give advice to Willie for solving problems with his girlfriend.
Into the tea room arrives white, 17-year-old Hally (Noah Robbins), son of the husband and wife who own the establishment. Sam, as a family employee has watched Hally grow up and has often befriended him. Now Hally is having problems at school and in his relationship with his often drunk, nasty father. He despises his father, who is seriously ill and about to come home from a hospital stay. Hally also is struggling to come to terms with growing up. Before the drama is over, Hally will spew inherent racism and class superiority that he harbors and break the bond that has existed between him and the warmhearted Sam. It is not a pretty transformation to watch.
Hally’s disgusting behavior weighs heavily on Sam, who finds his way of retaliating by maintaining the dignity that has been irrevocably assaulted. What goes down in that simple tea room reveals the black-white division in the country at that stage of history. On a deeply personal level, the racism that explodes is irredeemably ugly, yet Sam’s strong verbal fight back putting Hally in his place foretells what will develop on a larger scale.
My one qualm is part of the tone of the performance by Noah Robbins as Hally. As first-rate as it is under the direction of the playwright, Hally comes across as rather unpleasant from the beginning. Memory may be playing tricks with me, but I seem to recall that the portrait in a previous production was more sympathetic at first, which made his behavior much more of a betrayal when he inner feelings erupt. But that’s a minor personal reaction to what is a devastating drama.
Fugard’s skillful direction builds the play to the ultimate outburst and reaction, leaving the audience shocked. It is an exemplary, extremely well-written drama mounted with exemplary distinction. At the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, Phone: 212-244-7529. Reviewed November 14, 2016.