"Master Harold and the Boys," by South African playwright Athol Fugard, seems at first to be tackling apartheid. But this one- act play, set in a tea room on a rainy day, ultimately deals less with race than with clashing emotions.
The production at the Warner Theater, directed by the author, has James Earl Jones, Delroy Lindo and Charles Michael Wright acting up a thunderstorm. That is, they are often overacting -- especially Jones, who looks and sounds wired from beginning to bitter end. Still, the climactic showdown packs much of the punch intended.
The action happens in the St. Georges Park Tea Room in Port Elizabeth, circa 1950, with Sam the waiter (Jones) and Willie the busboy (Lindo) cleaning up on a slow afternoon -- that is, when Sam's not giving Willie pointers on ballroom dancing and love. Master Hally (Wright), the white boss' son, skips in from school to join "the boys." He and Willie play gunslinger; Sam, something of an older brother to Willie and a father to Hally, laughs and laughs.
The mood here, alas, is more manic than mirthful. Jones, no dancer, promptly works up a sweat, and chuckles like a Disney automaton. Wright affects adolescence by screeching, but looks at least twice the age he should. Lindo, though insouciant, can do little to lighten matters.
Having started at such a fevered pitch, the actors have few places to go. While the script gathers steam, the players must try not to lose it. Willie mops up -- taking some verbal and physical swats from Hally -- and Sam and Hally banter about "men of magnitude": Tolstoi, who freed his serfs, Napoleon, who believed all men to be equal, Jesus and a host of others. They move on to Hally's childhood memories in which Sam is a substitute for Hally's crippled father; they continue with dancing as a metaphor for human relations. "Nobody bumps into each other on the dance floor," Sam observes.
It's a dangling conversation, but has an undercurrent of dread: Hally, it turns out, despises his father, a man so helpless that Hally must continually empty his chamber pot. Dad happens to be at the hospital, which has given the lad some rest; now Mom calls with the news that Dad is coming home, and Hally goes berserk.
Suddenly the play shifts gears, and Jones for once holds back as he tries to calm the boy down. Instead there's an explosion. MASTER HAROLD AND THE BOYS -- At the Warner Theater through April 17.