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Michael Boatman, Christopher Denham, and Danny Glover
in "MASTER HAROLD"...and the boys
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Every so often, I fantasize about helping establish an outfit called the Bad Acting Police. Were such a squad available, it could be contacted at the first sign of an offense to cart the offender away instantly and until full rehabilitation is achieved. That fantasy struck again and severely at the revival of Athol Fugard's "MASTER HAROLD"...and the boys. This is the 90-minute work wherein the esteemed author brings together a 17-year-old white lad and two black employees in order to look closely at the difficulty of maintaining dignity, and the pervasive presence of prejudice, under apartheid in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.

The candidate for Bad Acting Police action is Christopher Denham, who, as the Master Harold of the title -- or Hally, as one of the men calls him for a while -- is hereby making his Broadway debut. He also may be giving the worst performance by a newcomer (or by anyone) in a long, long time. I don't want to state outright it's the worst ever, since, to paraphrase Walter Kerr's notice for the musical Portofino, I've only been seeing Broadway productions for 50 years.

In the role of an adolescent who doesn't know how to deal with his unseen, presumably weak father and so vents his frustration on the two men working in the family business, the St. Georges Park Tea Room, Denham has to show how the youngster fluctuates between revering and disdaining his co-workers and how he evaluates his respect for the proud Sam (Danny Glover), who has all but raised him. A skinny lad with a thin face and straight, black hair that bounces about, Denham sees the menacing vicissitudes of the character as license to emote with every word spoken, as well as during the silences between them.

Rarely is the young actor still; on the contrary, he jumps and crouches, darts back and forth, perches, and circles, sometimes doing all of the above within one line of dialogue. Even when sitting, he regularly twists his face into ugly expressions and his body into angles most typically seen in asylum wards. Using a very pronounced accent (Stephen Gabis is the dialect coach), Denham employs his strident voice in great waves of volume and sudden ebbing diminutions. He seems thrilled when he finds a different tone for every syllable in a declarative sentence.

It's only fair to report that, at the preview preformance I attended, curtain call cheers from many audience members greeted Denham, whose Playbill biography refers to four previous appearances and mentions two novels he's written. This is hard to explain, as nothing organic is detectable in Denham's obscene histrionics. Every emotion, every gesture -- especially during a couple of hysterical phone calls in which Hally chastises his mother -- seems manufactured to make it clear that HERE'S AN ACTOR TO BE RECKONED WITH, integrity of the script be damned.

That's the major problem with a performance as out of whack as Denham's: It doesn't exist in a vacuum, more's the shame and pity. Rather, it inevitably affects the other actors and the play. Much as Danny Glover as Sam and Michael Boatman as the younger and more readily deferential Willie try to resist the vortex of Denham's scenery-chomping, they give into it at times and occasionally overdo what's required of them. Their fight not to succumb is valiant, though. When Master Harold is finally shut up towards the end of the action and then sent offstage, Glover and Boatman get on with a final scene in which they finish a discussion about ballroom dancing. Their playing here brings Fugard's glimmer-of-hope message into balance and makes the ultimate fade to black intensely moving.

Denham's public affront is, of course, partly the responsibility of director Lonny Price. Since Price was Master Harold in the first Broadway staging (Danny Glover was Willie in that production), he presumably knows what the role calls for; yet he has allowed this misshapen characterization to flourish, if not encouraged it. An acquaintance of mine recalls that Price himself was over-the-top when the play premiered stateside just over 21 years ago. That may well be, but I also seem to remember that he was able at times to suggest a boyish sweetness in Hally's relationship to Sam, rather than the incipient diabolism Denham that evokes almost from the moment he enters.

Christopher Denham and Danny Glover
in "MASTER HAROLD"...and the boys
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Price deserves gratitude for guiding Glover and Boatman to such command of the stage. Just the way that Glover answers the phone and enunciates "St. Georges Park Tea Room" says plenty about who this man is and how he's decided to handle the possibilities and limitations of his world. Boatman is fine as a man unsure on his feet. Commendable as these two performances are, however, director Price is still to blame for letting Denham get away with manuscript murder.

No one in the design departments lets the production down. John Lee Beatty's tea room, painted a sickish pea green and featuring a counter with three swiveling leather seats, is another of the man's marvels. Lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski has as his evident source a few ceiling fixtures, but he also keeps throwing faint beams against the walls to suggest incessant traffic outside. Sound designer Brian Ronan doesn't have much to do, since the garish jukebox only comes to life at the end of the play when Fugard calls for a version of "Little Man, You've Had a Busy Day." (Okay, the playwright himself isn't always subtle.) Here, Ronan earns his keep by inserting a Sarah Vaughan version of the standard that matches the rich nobility of the stage picture. Finally, in what may have been one good day's work, Jane Greenwood has found the right school boy's uniform for Hally and the perfect restaurant wear for men working a tea emporium with certain pretensions.

Because Denham's hijinks often make it impossible to focus on the script proper, some theatergoers might fault the play rather than the player. These could be the same people who've reached the conclusion, in the decade or so since apartheid ended, that Fugard's works and those of other outspoken literary figures have lost their urgency. Whether "MASTER HAROLD"...and the boys now has the same impact that it had when it was written is apparently a subject of concern -- though, obviously, not in the minds of the producers. It's a foolish worry at any rate, since the author here scrutinizes human behavior that far transcends the politics of a particular time and place. The tea room and its occupants are a metaphor for abuse of power and its ramifications, a metaphor not confined to South Africa in an especially iniquitous period.

During a sequence wherein Hally instructs Sam in word definitions, the former asks the latter to use the word "magnitude" in a sentence. Here are two I've imagined: The magnitude of Christopher Denham's malfeasance in "MASTER HAROLD"...and the boys is awesome. The magnitude of Athol Fugard's accomplishment is even more awesome.

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