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Exits and Entrances

Theatre Reviews by Matthew Murray

William Dennis Hurley
Photo by James Leynse

Autobiographical plays are often love letters, if usually of the abstract or bitterly ironic variety that wouldn't heat most Valentine's Days to room temperature. So it's both surprising and legitimately heartwarming to find one so affectionate and even thankful toward another person that you can all but see that pesky "auto" prefix melt before your eyes.

This happy achievement comes courtesy of Exits and Entrances, the solemn yet thoroughly charming play by Athol Fugard that Primary Stages is presenting at 59E59 in a production originally seen at The Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles. Though the focus of Fugard's glimpse into the newborn days of the independent Republic of South Africa in the early 1960s is not the playwright himself, he never vanishes entirely from the proceedings (impossible in a two-character play in any event). In fact, he's even our key window into the world of the burgeoning country's theatre in a time it was still trying to define itself artistically.

However, Fugard, referred to here only as The Playwright and played by William Dennis Hurley, was not yet 30 and thus could not have experienced the successes or setbacks that define any lengthy career; a true tour through the dazzling, debilitating, and confounding complexities of life requires a more experienced guide. For Fugard, the person who proved just that - and much more - was an actor named André Huguenet. You may never have heard of him, but actor Morlan Higgins's exquisite performance guarantees you'll never forget him.

Morlan Higgins
Photo by James Leynse

At his first appearances, backstage at a 1956 mounting of Oedipus Rex (The Playwright is improbably playing the old shepherd), André is in every way the consummate Actor: grand of stature and voice, vain, and highly (perhaps even haughtily) philosophical about matters both personal and theatrical. After watching André ceremoniously stuff himself into his costume - applying a corset, draping a crimson cape just so over one shoulder - his onstage performance as the doomed King of Thebes becomes an education not in eliminating artifice but in controlling every aspect of it.

Yet when The Playwright meets André again five years later, following a performance of Bridget Boland's The Prisoner, his worldview has changed: Survival has humbled him, his experiences on the brink of poverty have transformed him into a man and actor of painful honesty. He's abandoned his own dream of founding a progressive Afrikaner theatre, and has accepted the theatre for what it is, and encourages The Playwright to do the same. But if his craft is less visible now, it's never been surer: His performances as The Prisoner's persecuted cardinal and in an offstage recitation of Hamlet's "To be or not to be" speech transcend acting to become the weary admissions of conquering hero now ready to make his final exit gracefully.

But despite André's lofty nature, The Playwright's wide-eyed absorption of his well-worn life lessons, and perhaps too many broad characterizations of the theatre's potential and spiritual power, there's no trace of maudlin here. Director Scott Sachs's pinpointed, declarative staging reveals this a hopelessly sincere and serenely beautiful portrait of two artists, one fading and one forming, against the establishment of a new country that would prove crucial in both their fates.

There are times Hurley overplays his impetuous eagerness, seeming less young than annoyingly undisciplined. But overall his performance is a detailed and respectful invocation of Fugard, or any emerging talent, drawing in vivid and precisely articulated dramatic strokes how a master of presenting equality and social consciousness onstage (such as in "MASTER HAROLD"...and the boys) developed and honed his talents.

It's in Higgins, though, that the real sparkles and full-out flames are found. Gradually morphing from a flamboyant uncle into a reluctantly responsible father figure, he brings a somber power and captivating sense of reflection to a man who managed to learn the truth about living before it was too late. During André's moments invoking Oedipus, the cardinal, and finally Hamlet, you're witnessing the evolution of art from craft, stacked so seamlessly you can't tell where the actor leaves off and the actor-as-actor begins.

That, too, is part of the point: What you see from your vantage point in the audience is only one part of the story; what brought the characters - and the actors playing them - to that point can be every bit as interesting. In some cases, even more interesting. Fugard sometimes relies too heavily on the excerpts from other works, and at 80 minutes the play is so short you feel the imbalance more than you might in a longer work.

But the ebb and flow of André's personality washes away any hint of dissatisfaction that might creep in. You're seeing the sculpting of a star from the overheated gases of someone who once made his living as a puffed-out windbag, but eventually came to learn (and teach) the hard way that what he always smirkingly said about his real home being onstage was true after all. By the end of Exits and Entrances, you'll need no convincing that André, like Fugard to follow, never belonged anywhere else.

Exits and Entrances
Through April 29
59E59 Theaters - Theater A, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison
Running Time: 85 minutes with no intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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