William Dennis Hurley and Morlan Higgins 
in Exits and Entrances
(© James Leynse)
William Dennis Hurley and Morlan Higgins
in Exits and Entrances
(© James Leynse)
Writers are often wisely advised to write about what they know. With Exits and Entrances, now making a belated New York premiere at Primary Stages, Athol Fugard expands the dictum to suggest that sometimes writers should not only write about what they know but about what they know and love. One thing the politically committed South African writer knows and loves is the theater, so why shouldn't he write about his favored subject?

From one perspective, this 80-minute two-hander with its concentration on an actor holding forth in his dressing-room is reminiscent of such plays as David Mamet's A Life in the Theater, Ronald Harwood's The Dresser, and even Charles Busch's recent Our Leading Lady. Nevertheless, it's written directly from the heart, and that origin gives the opus a commanding radiance. It goes a long way towards forgiving the play's familiarity and minimizing its faint ain't-show-folks-grand air.

When Fugard was an aspiring playwright, he worked with an actor named Andre Huguenet, who was known as "the Olivier of South Africa" but who in his introspective moments thought of himself as a "ham." It was from Huguenet that Fugard began to understand why theater is worth such loving devotion. The abiding lesson he learned from his lengthy exposure to Huguenet is what he commemorates in Exits and Entrances, but he doesn't view this love strictly through rose-colored glasses. In the piece, he includes the quirks, eccentricities and not infrequent small-mindedness regularly encountered in the working theater.

In a two-part flashback, the young Fugard (William Dennis Hurley) -- identified only as The Playwright -- remembers Huguenet (Morlan Higgins) on a 1951 night when he was preparing to play Oedipus Rex in a Port Elizabeth playhouse. Then Fugard recalls a Capetown evening five years later following what Huguenet decides is his last appearance. In the earlier scene the ingenuous Playwright is doubling as Huguenet's assistant and a shepherd in the production. In the later scene, he's just returned from an unsuccessful London stay where's he'd hoped to peddle a few plays but hasn't.

Throughout both scenes the Playwright listens intently -- even rapturously -- to Huguenet, who is imperious, off-hand, insecure, short-tempered, forgetful, and spellbinding. In both segments, as well, he's witness to a man possessed by his craft, a man who recalls falling in love with theater as a child watching Anna Pavlova dance The Dying Swan. Eventually, Fugard's message is that mentoring is as much about something indelible rubbing off as it is about acquired knowledge.

Because of Fugard's regard for Huguenet, it becomes the meatier role. And under Stephen Sachs' sure direction, Higgins meets just about all of Fugard's demands -- not the least of which is exposing his beefy, unbuffed physique in tank-top and baggy boxers. Higgins' body is a metaphor for the exposed emotions actors must evidence.

During this big and brave performance, Higgins shifts moods as quickly as at one point he races amusingly through Oedipus Rex's grittily poetic lines. Towards play's end, Fugard has Huguenet recall a role model of his memorably reciting Hamlet's "to be or not to be" soliloquy. In as challenging a set-up as any actor might hope to avoid, he then delivers his own introspective version of the famous speech. Fortunately, Higgins even clears this hurdle with ease.

As The Playwright, Hurley is consigned to muted second fiddle, often sitting obsequiously at Huguenet's knee. Nevertheless, he scores during one irate speech excoriating apartheid that is certainly Fugard expressing his own convictions.

At one crucial turn, The Playwright suggests that after the Oedipus Rex performance Andre will be ready to relax at home. Andre takes issue with the casual remark. Expanding on his view of "home" as not necessarily a literal residence, he says, "I am an actor. A good actor. For 30 years I've been up there 'on the boards' acting. The stage is my real home." It doesn't take much insight to realize that Fugard -- whose early plays temporarily made him a pariah in his native country -- has adopted Huguenet's perspective as a blueprint for living. Therefore, it's appropriate to say to him on the arrival of Exits and Entrances, "Welcome home."