Dance With Me

Life Lessons: Christopher Denham, left, and Danny Glover in Fugard's Port Elizabeth tearoom.Photo: Joan Marcus

Offhand it might seem that Athol Fugard’s anti-apartheid play “Master Harold” … and the boys should have been buried in the same grave with apartheid: What need to inveigh against the dead? The current revival proves this notion doubly mistaken. First, Fugard is not a mere political activist; he is also a genuine playwright. Now that its political agenda is no longer paramount, one recognizes the play as a thoughtful work of art. Second, no matter how abolished apartheid may be, other kinds of racism, deep-rooted and often unconscious, persist; it is against them that Fugard’s disturbingly perceptive play is wittily, humanely, cauterizingly directed.

Harold is the teenage son of a dysfunctional South African family whose despotic father is about to leave the hospital against medical judgment and his browbeaten wife’s and bullied son’s ardent wishes. The play takes place on a rainy afternoon in 1950 at the family’s Port Elizabeth tearoom, where young Harold, nicknamed Hally, purports to do his homework while actually seeking the friendship of wise, elderly Sam and naïvely optimistic young Willie, the restaurant’s black employees.

Willie hopes to win an upcoming dance competition, and Sam, a more experienced dancer, is giving him pointers. Hally comes in looking for relief from depressing bedside visits to his threatening father and exasperation with his meekly compliant mother. He acts as if he and “the boys” are on equal footing, but underneath the fraternizing something ugly lurks. He has to write an essay on a life-enhancing experience, for which the ability of couples on a dance floor to avoid collisions could provide symbolic inspiration, and, at Sam’s suggestion, an incident from the past might serve as focus. This was when, with Sam’s help, little Hally had the thrill of his young life flying a kite on a beach where, however, Sam, being black, wasn’t allowed to sit down.

I won’t go into the plot: funny, scary, wrenching, and, above all, wise, if needlessly preachy in the end. Otherwise it is subtle, incisive, and thought-provoking, with the whites not painted too black, and the blacks not too white. Both are fallible, with an equal potential for good and for bad. The play’s important revelation is that racism often flares up as an outlet for frustrations caused by grievances having nothing to do with race. Splendidly acted by Danny Glover, Michael Boatman, and Christopher Denham under Lonny Price’s smartly sympathetic direction, this may be finer yet than the original Broadway production, in which Price was Hally and Glover Willie. From today’s vantage point, we can see that Fugard possesses something even better than timely foresight: timeless insight.

Charlotte Jones has written a new Hamlet play, Humble Boy. The old one had only two be’s: to be and not to be. This one has a big, gorgeous garden with a beehive in it once full of bees. But James Humble, a biology teacher and amateur beekeeper, has just died, and Flora (note the name!), his widow, got rid of the insects, choosing not to bee. Her son, the nerdy Felix, a budding theoretical astrophysicist at Cambridge, has come back to provincial Moreton, and, disgusted with his mother’s involvement with the rather coarse George Pye, avoids delivering the funeral oration, thus arousing maternal fury. George, owner of the Pye in the Sky coach firm, is keen to marry Flora, whose lover he has long been. He and Felix hate each other.

Seven years ago, Felix had an affair with George’s daughter, Rosie, now a nurse and midwife-in-training, mother of little Felicity, father unknown. Rosie tried, and still tries, to teach repressed Felix “to be.” There is also Mercy, Flora’s mousy and officious neighbor, with a secret crush on George; further, Jim, the strangely sage gardener. Plus some bumble (in British also humble) bees that managed to escape deportation. And there are the ashes of James Humble, in an earthenware honey pot Felix keeps clutching to his bosom. As the summer wears on, the six characters interact drolly, surprisingly, bizarrely.

The parallels with Hamlet are not too heavily leaned on, and the play has wonderfully whimsical and pointed dialogue, sometimes deliberately wounding, more often ironically oblique. The humor is airily offbeat, the science not overinsistent, and the nomenclatural symbolism adds cheeky spice. And all this against the lushest of gardens to provide a poetic, fairy-tale background. The Royal National Theatre production’s set and costumes (Tim Hatley), lighting (Paul Pyant), music (Joe Cutler), and superlative direction (John Caird) have happily crossed the ocean, and the cast performs with amply sufficient talent and British inflection. Jared Harris (who himself just lost his father, Richard) proves admirably biting and bumbling as Felix; Blair Brown, lately somewhat tentative, reasserts full, mature command as Flora; and what joy to have Mary Beth Hurt and Paul Hecht back after an overlong absence. Although Rosie is supposed to be plain, Ana Reeder is as good-looking as she is good, the kind of miscasting I can only applaud. All of them sparklingly keep up with Jones’s spirited traversal from beeing to being.

What makes Lanford Wilson such a valuable playwright is the variety of his subjects, the lightly worn research he brings to his characters’ professions and problems, and the compassionate understanding he invests in his creations. His range is vast, his authenticity unimpugnable, and his empathy deeply involving. Rain Dance takes place at Los Alamos on the night leading up to the first atom-bomb detonation, July 15, 1945. The scene is the cantina, the characters Hank, a young Italian-American mathematician from the Bronx; Peter, a middle-aged Flemish atomic physicist; Irene, his much younger, neurotic, German-born artist wife; and Tony, an Indian native of the region, now a much-traveled Army sergeant. Unseen but talked about are the major players: Oppenheimer, Fermi, Teller, Szilard, and Bohr. And somewhere outside, wrapped in secrecy, is Ground Zero and the ominous weapon waiting to be born, unless it miscarries. Unfortunately, it is the play that does.

The characters are overshadowed by what is offstage; onstage, nothing much happens beyond a table overturned in anger and a stealthy kiss. There is a thunderstorm outside that may wash out the scheduled explosion; in the cantina, despite anxiety about the future, the talk remains close to becalmed. It covers a multitude of subjects from the rise of Hitler to Italian cuisine, from secret and sacred Indian dances to prostitution tolerated on the premises to keep the bachelors on the project from going crazy.

Guy Sanville has staged things dutifully, but for once, the worthy Wilson has bitten off less than he can chew. It is all intelligent, informative—and as close to boring as this playwright has ever come.

Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf, really Lothar Berfelde (1928–2002), was a German museum curator and transvestite, whose fascinating autobiography, Ich bin meine eigene Frau, has been dramatized by Doug Wright, who has retitiled it I Am My Own Wife. From childhood, Lothar thought of himself as a girl, and was tormented by his brutal, wife-beating father, understood by his hapless mother, and sheltered successively by an enlightened great uncle and a lesbian aunt.

The memoir chronicles Lothar’s adventures and often narrow escapes under Nazism and Communism, the odd jobs that trained him for collector- and curatorship, and his adjustment to transvestism and homosexuality. The persecution of Jews and homosexuals is compellingly conveyed in terse and shattering vignettes. Equally powerful are evocations of aerial bombardments and other horrors of war.

And, of course, fond reminiscences of gay joints and the doings in the gay netherworld. Much of this doesn’t translate into one-man (or any) theater; least of all the arduous but spellbinding transformation of a disintegrating mansion into a charming museum, achieved by Charlotte’s two hands without outside help.

Act One, more Charlotte than Doug, works handily; Act Two, which is more Doug as interviewer, condenser, imaginer, and fabricator, is less interesting and annoyingly self-serving. But Jefferson Mays—with mediocre German pronunciation, a good German accent in English, and very fine performing that involves quick character and voice changes—does yeoman’s service. Derek McLane’s décor, David Lander’s lighting, and Moisés Kaufman’s staging contribute handsomely. “My motive was always to preserve something,” Charlotte wrote, “not for myself but for posterity.”

Theater Listings
Openings and Closings
Broadway Shows
Off-Broadway Shows

“Master Harold” … and the boys
Revival of the Athol Fugard play, staged by Lonny Price; starring Danny Glover.

Humble Boy
By Charlotte Jones, staged by John Caird; starring Jared Harris, Blair Brown, Mary Beth Hurt, and Paul Hecht.

Rain Dance
By Lanford Wilson.

I Am My Own Wife
By Doug Wright.

Dance With Me