Review: ‘Hello and Goodbye’

From his own dark and dusty autobiographical sources, South African playwright Athol Fugard has staged "Hello and Goodbye" in Princeton. The author's imaginative direction displays taut authority and fuses strong performances. The play, which premiered in Johannesburg in 1965, is from the Port Elizabeth trilogy, which also included "The Blood Knot" and "Boesman and Lena."

From his own dark and dusty autobiographical sources, South African playwright Athol Fugard has staged “Hello and Goodbye” in Princeton. The author’s imaginative direction displays taut authority and fuses strong performances. The play, which premiered in Johannesburg in 1965, is from the Port Elizabeth trilogy, which also included “The Blood Knot” and “Boesman and Lena.”

The two-character drama focuses on the unsettling reunion of a brother and sister who have been separated for 12 years. An aging prostitute returns to a white shantytown on the South African coast to confront a troubled past and stake a claim for her father’s insurance compensation, believed to be awarded for damages he suffered while employed as a railway worker. Clashing with a restless, guilt-ridden brother, Hester (Maria Tucci) — ruthlessly honest and harboring deep hatred for a blind, crippled and drunken father whom she is led to believe still clutches on to life — draws Johnnie (Zeljko Ivanek) into a bitter, abrasive and often comic pilgrimage to the past.

Suspicion and hostility prevail until a swift change from cautious rivalry leads to certain understanding. In a second-act metaphorical exorcism of the past, the siblings join in a maddening quest for the hidden inheritance, rummaging through tattered boxes, baskets and trunks. For the actors, the piece is a formidable duet that’s keenly attuned to the poetic imagery and persuasive language of the text.

Ivanek brings a brooding intensity to the role, braced with eccentric flights into the abstract. Reluctant to accept the death of his father, Johnnie (a role originated by Fugard) is drawn to the parent’s crutches, symbolizing the emotional cripple he has become. Ivanek makes it a tragic moment. Tucci is equally extraordinary, especially when, discovering the mother’s old dress, she is face to face with a tattered souvenir of the past. Tucci creates a memorable study of loss and despair.

Susan Hilferty’s shabby kitchen set is a descriptive hovel designed to focus on the impoverished climate and the bleak desperation of Fugard’s characters. McCarter Theater has afforded us with an honorable new look at a timeless, early Fugard gem.

SAN DIEGO Two-act fantasy by Alan Ayckbourn produced in its U.S. premiere by the Old Globe Theater. Directed by Craig Noel. Scenic design, Greg Lucas; costume design, Clare Henkel; lighting, Michael Gilliam; sound, Jeff Ladman. Opened Jan. 22, 1994, at the Cassius Carter Theater (through March 6). Reviewed Jan. 25; 225 seats; $ 32 top.

1st Narrator … Ralph Elias

2nd Narrator … Katherine McGrath

Suzy … Jennifer Hugus

Mother … Lynne Griffin

Neville … Sean Sullivan

Father …Steve Jones

Mr. Passerby … Richard Easton

Mr. Accousticus … Jonathan

McMurtry

This probably is a fun play for kids. As for adults, well …

Alan Ayckbourn wrote “Mr. A’s” for young audiences at his Theater in the Round in Scarborough, England, and supposedly revised it to add appeal for older patrons. It needs a few more runs through the word processor if it’s going to charm many theatergoers older than 11.

The story centers on Suzy, a girl about that age, and her dog, Neville, a big , shaggy mutt she says is a pedigreed Old English Wolf Boxer, growing up together in a small English village in the early part of the century.

Suzy’s mother is warmhearted, hard-working and apparently a widow, since her balloonist husband went up years ago and hasn’t been seen since. Nothing else is extraordinary except for Mother’s speech. She’s well educated but quirkily puts extra, rhyming syllables into words.

Ayckbourn tosses this in with no apparent reason or explanation, physical or theatrical. And while the peculiarity is mildly amusing at first, it quickly becomes tiresome and seems to fall into that vast category of Ayckbourn Humor That Doesn’t Transfer Across the Big Pond.

Anyway, into their lives — and the big house across the street — comes Mr. A, for Accousticus, who doesn’t fool Suzy or Neville with his neighborly behavior. Shortly, they find out why they mistrust him: He’s able to steal voices.

Cursed with too-sensitive hearing, he craves silence (Accousticus — get it?) , so he’s devised a way to capture voices and sounds. He starts with the singing neighborhood drunk, then takes the birds’ chirping and — horrors — Neville’s bark.

Since this occurs in the years before boom boxes and amps on steroids, the man is clearly a villain. While foolish Mother entertains him at dinner, Suzy and Neville sneak over to his place to find the missing noises — er, sounds.

And thus we come to another gimmick, this one on the order of other Ayckbourn trickiness, like “Intimate Exchanges,” which had permutations leading to a possible 16 endings. Mr. A.’s house, it turns out, is full of passages and, consequently, choices.

Whenever Suzy faces a choice, the lights come up and the audience votes by raised hand as to which way she should go. Supposedly, this justifies the tongue-twisting title and makes each presentation of the play different. If so, it’s a difference without distinction.

Maybe “Mr. A’s” would play better on a larger stage, with more pronounced choices, and not in the round. Given those limitations, Craig Noel’s staging, carried out with a capable cast and a top-notch tech team, has attempted to add substance to the fairy-tale fare. The father’s balloon basket, for instance, ascends into the overhead light grid.

For Jeff Ladman, this production is a sound designer’s dream, highlighted by the cacophony from the cabinet containing stolen sounds. On Greg Lucas’ crowded set, one corner is Suzy’s shabby front porch. Overhead are hanging shreds of cloth, and a twisted tree adds to the ominousness. Michael Gilliam’s lighting serves well. Clare Henkel’s costuming is appropriate, and especially good in hiding the womanly curves of Jennifer Hugus in Suzy’s plaid outfit.

Hugus captures the little-girl expressions and moves, and Lynne Griffin enunciates Mother’s speech defect with elan. For those, however, who don’t find great and repeated pleasure in hearing words like “hooligooligans” or “flatteratterer,” there’s little to delight in except Sean Sullivan’s terrific performance as Neville.

Costumed like a cross between the Cowardly Lion and a very fat mop (he sheds strands all around, raising fear that the costume won’t last the run), Sullivan is unerring, whether panting, leg-scratching or just sitting.

Theoretically, Suzy’s choices mean that no two shows are alike, so patrons can come back and see a different version. Not likely.

Hello and Goodbye

Production

PRINCETON, N.J. A McCarter Theater presentation of a play in two acts, written and directed by Athol Fugard. Sets and costumes, Susan Hilferty.

Crew

Lighting, Dennis Parichy; stage manager, Allison Sommers. Artistic director, Emily Mann; managing director, Jeffrey Woodward. Opened Feb. 1, 1994. Reviewed Feb. 4; 1,075 seats; $ 40 top.

With

Johnnie ... Zeljko Ivanek Hester ... Maria Tucci
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