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‘ ‘Master Harold’ . . . and the Boys’ review: Powerful revival

From left, Sahr Ngaujah, Leon Addison Brown and

From left, Sahr Ngaujah, Leon Addison Brown and Noah Robbins in Athol Fugard's " 'Master Harold' . . . and the Boys," Off-Broadway at Signature Theatre. Credit: Monique Carboni

WHAT “ ‘Master Harold’ . . . and the Boys”

WHERE Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St.

INFO $30; 212-244-7529; signaturetheatre.org

BOTTOM LINE Beautiful and upsetting Fugard revival.

Athol Fugard recently described “a thought in the back of my head” that, perhaps, it was time to revisit his beautiful and upsetting South African play, “ ‘Master Harold’ . . . and the Boys.” Thirty-four years after his most autobiographical drama became an unlikely hit on Broadway, Fugard, 84, said, “At this point of my life, some reconsidering must take place about what I have done and what I have been.”

The revival was also the wish of James Houghton, the invaluable founder of the Signature Theatre Company, who died this summer of stomach cancer at 57. How right he was in pressuring Fugard to revisit the work with such youthful power and a magnificent cast, not to mention for naming him a Legacy Playwright in what has become a New York home for this great artist and provocateur.

“ ‘Master Harold’ . . . ” (the punctuation is meaningful) has just three characters and runs only 90 minutes. And yet, it is a touchstone for what Fugard has done and has been. With its leisurely storytelling, deceptively complex humanity and grounded simplicity, the wonderful play reminds us how, through the decades, Fugard has taken people from very far away and made their lives so real that they resound beyond the impersonal facts of distant news stories.

We are in a large tea room (designed with meticulous detail by Christopher H. Barreca) in a provincial South African town in 1950, the belly of apartheid. It is raining hard, but, with no white customers around to disapprove, an older black worker named Sam (Leon Addison Brown) is playfully coaching Willie (Sahr Ngaujah), the younger one, for an upcoming ballroom competition. The dance must look easy, Sam says, elegantly demonstrating. It must look like a romance — “a love story and a happy ending.”

Happy ends are not the norm in this world, where even good, victimized men beat their women and the realities of racial hierarchy descend like prison bars on the hopeful. The boss’ teenage son Harold (Noah Robbins), whom they call Hally, comes in after school with his pile of books, his zeal for “social reform” and his obvious affection for the black men. This is especially true for Sam, a father figure for the boy whose own father is a needy, disabled alcoholic.

When I first saw “ ‘Master Harold’ . . . ,” I dismissed it as just another pecking-order play — you know, the ones in which the king hits the queen and the queen kicks the dog. Fugard, in his reconsideration, proves how wrong I was.

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