Love, vulnerability, friendship, racism. One would think that a play carrying these kinds of themes would be an amazing sight to behold. Although “‘Master Harold’ ? and the boys” was written with a powerful vision in mind, its message falls short of greatness with a mediocre stage performance.
Set in a quaint tearoom in 1950s Port Elizabeth, South Africa, “‘Master Harold’ ? and the boys” is directed by Barbara Clayton. The play highlights an afternoon of work for Hally (Michael McGuire), the college-student son of the owner, and his African co-workers and lifelong friends, Willie and Sam (Harry Waters Jr. and Baron Kelly, respectively).
While reminiscing about the good old days when Hally and Sam flew kites in the neighborhood, Hally receives a phone call that turns his world upside down. His crippled, alcoholic father is coming home from the hospital. Hally’s fear and anger about what this return may bring to his life lead him to say terrible, racist remarks to his friends that he would never have otherwise uttered.
McGuire, as the lead, couldn’t accomplish the daunting task of portraying many different emotions onstage – one minute laughing at the antics of Willie and Sam dancing around the tea room, and the next spitting in his friend’s face. McGuire lacked the emotion needed to bring life to his character. As the central character, he did not push the play along and keep the audience interested. Rather, he made them cringe in scenes such as one where he attempted to cry. He looked more like a four-year-old child pouting than a grown man worried about the return of his father. And although he tried to connect with his character, the anger and apprehension seemed forced and unnatural.
The show was saved by the excellent performances of Kelly and Waters Jr. They had chemistry onstage right from the start. Their refreshing ballroom dance practice while cleaning the tearoom brought a humorous touch to a somewhat depressing storyline.
Kelly did a wonderful job of playing the wise father figure to Hally, delivering lines like “learn to dance life like champions” and “the hope for mankind after all ? is a world without collisions.” He remained realistic and natural, which almost made up for McGuire’s lack of believability. Kelly brought power and emotion to his monologue after the incidents of Hally’s racism, speaking profoundly of pride, prejudice and the break of innocence that he was witnessing in his young friend. Kelly’s performance made this play, and without him the power would not have existed.
The production’s physical aspects worked very well, with great attention paid to small details. Rain fell from the awning outside the steamed picture window of the tearoom, and Willie scrubbed the cream tile floor with a soapy dishrag. Slight prop problems, such as when the phone cord detached from the phone while Hally was talking on it, did not take away from the overall performance. Solid lighting and sound supported the play, and the all-around set construction was a treat for the eyes.
“‘Master Harold’ ? and the boys” could have been a great production. However, without a powerful lead performance, it seemed unsatisfying. The three-person cast did not allow for enough character development, but Kelly and Waters Jr. held their ground to keep the story afloat. The play, while worth seeing, did not finish without collisions.