It's hard to make a serious case for Athol Fugard's Exits and Entrances, now at the New Rep through March 15.
It's also hard not to enjoy it.
The piece is certainly not a serious addition to the Fugard canon; in fact, it's clearly derivative of other, better plays such as The Dresser and A Life in the Theatre, which together have formed something of their own genre: the sweetly elegiac two-hander in which a theatrical innocent, usually hetero, shares a dressing room with some aging, homo hambone devoted to the classics. Bitchy revelations of ruthless vanity inevitably ensue, followed by a sentimental glow of respect for a vanishing breed.
This time the ingénue is obviously Fugard himself, and the hambone André Huguenet, "the Olivier of South Africa" (Will Lyman and Ross MacDonald, at left). The two crossed paths when Fugard was just a lad, back in the day when Huguenet was touring the classics in Afrikaans (the classic language of apartheid). Given that set-up, immediately one can sense the new, political variable Fugard has brought to this venerable theatrical equation: the question of the ethics of performing even beautifully-mounted classics in an officially racist - and homophobic - society (the play actually straddles the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre, a turning point for the country).
Alas, the playwright only half-brings this up, and director Chris Jorie gently pats the issue down whenever it threatens to raise its troubling head. It's easy to guess why: pressing our faces to the unpleasant vision of Olivier playing Hamlet for the Ku Klux Klan would kind of ruin that whole sentimental afterglow thang, wouldn't it.
Or would it? If Fugard had pushed this question a bit more - and even, perhaps, allowed his hero a few racist cracks, or forced him to face his own gay-second-class-citizen status - the piece might have been challenging in a deep, serious way. For doesn't this very question, of the artist's ethical responsibilities in society, still haunt America? (Gone with the Wind, anyone? How about 24?) Still, to be fair to the playwright, I don't think the New Rep does even Fugard's half-baked vision full justice. After all, the playwright has his South African Olivier quote from Oedipus Rex for a reason: like the Greek hero, he, too, is blind to his true political and moral situation - and he, too, comes to ruin in the play's poignant second act. But somehow at the New Rep this whole thematic undercurrent seems to be happening offstage; indeed, this production, which chooses comfort over confrontation, unconsciously offers a sad parallel to the characters' own dilemma.
Still, the piece does have its comforts (and compensations). Chief among these is the performance of local star Will Lyman, who lacks the larger-than-life, leonine presence Huguenet should ideally project (Albert Finney provided the basic template for the role in The Dresser), but supplies a small-scaled elegance - and eloquence - which proves quite seductive in its own right. His rippling readings from Oedipus Rex, tossed off, appropriately enough, as he applies his make-up, are little acting lessons in the art of the miniature, and his final rendition of "To be or not to be" was, indeed, desolate and devastating. In the part of the Fugard factotum, Ross MacDonald proved less satisfactory, despite this young actor's self-evident presence and skill. Whether due to Jorie's direction or his own lack of insight, MacDonald offers a sweet but ultimately superficial take on his character (called simply "The Playwright") that may be sufficient for the first act, but definitely not the second. During that "interval," of course, the country began its final descent into repression, and "the playwright" realized he could no longer ignore the resulting moral call to arms; in short, Athol Fugard became Athol Fugard. But Ross MacDonald doesn't attempt the same transformation. Lyman gives the Huguenet a grand exit stage-right; but the playwright never makes his entrance on the opposite side.