Athol Fugard, creator of such classics as “Sizwe Banzi Is Dead” and “Master Harold … and the Boys,” can say more with a single line than most playwrights convey in an entire script. One phrase from his new play, “He’s dying of unimportance,” relates to an offstage character, but it also strikingly sums up the slow, painful decline of its fading actor protagonist. More than that, it dramatizes the fear of all people who no longer feel admired, needed or wanted.
A fresh unproduced work by Fugard, with this caliber of writing, would have found an immediate home on Broadway, but the 78-seat Fountain Theater pulled off a remarkable coup by acquiring it as a world premiere.
Director Stephen Sachs (who first drew Fugard’s approval with a production of his “The Road to Mecca”) justifies Fugard’s faith in him by offering a deeply felt, forcefully acted rendition of the material. Paraphrasing the title, it’s safe to say this drama, making its memorable entrance into our consciousness, is unlikely to exit as long as a theater exists for exceptional work.
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“I am a miniaturist,” Fugard points out, by way of explaining his decision to let a small, nationally unknown theater introduce his two-character tour de force. The size reference applies only to physical dimensions, since Fugard’s heel/hero Andre (Morlan Higgins) is an unsettlingly large, spellbinding figure.
As portrayed by Higgins (2002 Ovation Award winner for the Fountain’s “After the Fall”), it’s evident that this weary trouper, based on real-life actor Andre Huguenet, once had the greatness to earn the sobriquet “the Olivier of South Africa.” It’s equally clear that his overbearing, wrathful roar is a facade masking disappointment and disintegration.
Port Elizabeth, South Africa, is the 1956 setting for an encounter between Andre and his worshipful dresser (William Dennis Hurley), referred to only as the Playwright. Against David Potts’ simple, effective set consisting of clothes rack, desk and two chairs, the young playwright helps tall, beefy Andre into a costume for “Oedipus Rex,” then runs lines with him and corrects him so meticulously that Andre says in horror, “Your concern for the sanctity of the printed word makes me suspect the worst.”
The worst, it turns out, is the young dresser’s desire to be a writer. This has particular comic resonance because we know the playwright is a stand-in for Fugard.
Fugard constructs demanding scenes that require a fearless, prodigiously gifted actor, and Higgins meets and masters every challenge. “I’ve even come to love the taste of stage blood,” he cries, heightening the impact of red streams dripping from his eyes during a climactic “Oedipus” scene.
In another sequence, portraying a humiliated cardinal, he begins to cry, and while his emotions build, a hint of tears becomes a flood. His wrenching self-description — “I’m an aging, fat, old gay ham” — has knifelike power.
Director Sachs allows Higgins his tour de force and wisely encourages Hurley to react subtly throughout most of their conversations. Hurley never competitively strives to match his co-star’s verbal arias, and this self-effacing approach pays off beautifully in the closing scenes, when the story finally permits an explosion between the two men.
Hurley has become a political playwright, raging against the repression of apartheid, and Higgins denigrates his idealism and lack of commercial instinct with this withering statement: “Learn how to write good drawing-room comedies.”
A definitive illustration of Fugard’s ability to suggest the essence of an actor’s ego arrives when Higgins, in the middle of a tirade about Hurley’s writing, off-handedly suggests there might be a part for him in one of Hurley’s plays. It’s a tribute to Higgins that this request reflects desperation we can identify with, rather than narcissism.
“Exits and Entrances” depends heavily on costumes to move its action forward, and Shon Le Blanc’s robes, corset, shin guards and sandals are both clever and accurate. Sounds contributed by David B. Marling — church bells, the echo of train engines and cars — are smoothly incorporated, integral parts of the plot.
Fugard’s concluding sentiment has an impact equal to Blanche DuBois’ “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” Hurley, after learning of Higgins’ death, repeats one of the deceased performer’s stage lines, “I am not a likeable man,” and adds poignantly, “He was wrong.”
Every discerning theatergoer is bound to agree.