Athol Fugard’s characters are always actors: In almost all of the South African playwright’s work, people navigate the racial dilemmas created by apartheid (or the post-apartheid era) by slipping in and out of roles that either suit their spirits or their government’s demands, but rarely both. The implication is that theater onstage reflects theater in life. In his new play, “Exits and Entrances,” Fugard fuses the two, using his real-life friendship with a South African star to ask when our role-playing gets the better of us.
In his program note, Fugard, now 75, says the play is designed to say thank you to South African stage thesp Andre Huguenet. While he died in 1961, Huguenet was, judging from the play’s affectionate portrayal, the kind of man who can not be forgotten.
Articulate, pompous and incredibly talented, Andre (Morlan Higgins) forces his dresser, a young man called only the Playwright (William Dennis Hurley), to define why art matters, especially as a weapon against apartheid. As the actor gets into costume and his makeup is applied, the two passionate souls argue over whether they are making an impact on the world.
But the play is more than an academic exercise. As it moves forward in time, it reunites the men in new circumstances. This time, the Playwright is thriving, but Andre is withering in obscurity. He is a gay man in a country full of hate and an actor now dismissed as old-fashioned; his passionate talk has become noise to cover his emptiness.
Between bouts of dialogue, Fugard often lets the Playwright step aside so Andre can deliver lengthy monologues, sometimes as himself and sometimes as characters such as Oedipus or Hamlet. Combined with the new script, the classic texts gain additional meaning. They provide insights not only into Oedipus and Hamlet but also into Andre.
In his first New York perf, Higgins has just the outsized presence he needs. He appears accustomed to commanding an old-time audience. Voice booming and hands flying wild, he darts around the dressing-room set. It’s obvious from the way his character bosses the Playwright around, occasionally slapping his shoulder with a command to put the tea kettle on, that Higgins enjoys being in any spotlight.
But there’s also a burning need behind Andre’s theatrics, an occasional look of desperation that begs for approval. Higgins makes Andre a man who once found a persona that made him feel accepted and then chose, no matter what, to keep it up forever.
Higgins’ perf peaks when Andre delivers Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy. Heavy with sadness, he realizes how Shakespeare’s words have become a mirror for his own life. Yet Fugard doesn’t let us pity Andre. The character is too articulate and self-aware to be pathetic; there’s great dignity in his defeat.
No doubt this is the dignity Fugard saw in Huguenot after he himself had grown old. That would explain why the Playwright occasionally turns to the audience to discuss what Andre taught him. At these points, the play becomes slightly tedious as the writer tries to sort out demons too personal to be interesting.
But those moments are fleeting compared to what Higgins and the rest of the script accomplish. Huguenot’s memory has been exceptionally preserved.