The conflict of South Africa is presented in small in Athol Fugard’s “Playland,” although small isn’t the word that comes to mind while watching the larger-than-life performances in this too-taut two-hander. Fugard, who directs his black-and-white parable with mixed results, pushes his cast to wrenching effectiveness — and well beyond.
With all the symbolism and foreshadowing that a one-act can take, “Playland” tells its story of two South Africans, one black, one white, forced to confront past sins and dark secrets amid the existential background of a traveling amusement park.
Fugard makes no pretense of presenting his tale as anything other than allegory, and if the message-driven plot wears its obviousness on the sleeve of a heavy hand, it also provides the two actors with some emotionally stunning moments.
Frankie R. Faison plays Martinus Zoeloe (pronounced Zulu), the park’s stoic night watchman; Gideon Le Roux (Kevin Spacey) is a white former soldier haunted by the atrocities of the South African Border War.
Although the men share a homeland, their cultural divide is vast, and their only spiritual link is the despair of former misdeeds: Both have committed murder.
For the religious but unrepentant Zoeloe, the crime means certain damnation; for Le Roux, movingly played by Spacey as a man on the edge, the savagery of his wartime acts can lead only to forgiveness or death. He seeks either, and receives one, from Zoeloe.
Running at 1 hour and 40 minutes, “Playland” watches as the two characters circle and goad one another, each trying to figure out the other’s mystery. Fugard balances the two “sides” of the play with characteristic even-handedness and generosity, although that same magnanimity too often is illustrated by a structure that’s too schematic.
Fugard the writer could eliminate much of the exposition and preamble that slow the first half of the play; Fugard the director could benefit from a lighter touch in guiding his actors.
Spacey, an entrancingly watchable actor, needs only the slightest expression or movement to convey Gideon’s unbearable grief. But when the character finally crumbles under the weight of guilt,Spacey’s histrionics prove distracting.
That aside, Spacey and Faison take remarkable advantage of Fugard’s verbal flights, as when Le Roux tearfully recounts the carnage of a week-old battlefield or Zoeloe tells of hiding in wait for the man who raped his fiance.
The gruesome brutality of their stories, as well as the entire play, is only slightly undone by the wishful-thinking ending.
With its busy lighting, blaring carnival sounds and seamy boardwalk set, “Playland” has a nightmarish quality that, while sometimes overwrought, serves the production’s symbolist nature.
A more naturalistic approach might at times seem desirable, but this metaphor-as-play could hardly sustain a literal reading. With “Playland,” it’s best to stay on the roller coaster no matter how bumpy the ride.