Since it cannot strike out over the footlights as the theater does, drama on television must draw the viewer in. The dynamics are different. Change the medium and you change the play -- even the very same play.
You can see the difference with " 'Master Harold' . . . and the boys," Athol Fugard's autobiographical chronicle of a rainy afternoon in a sorry tearoom in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, during which a young white boy learns he is capable of racism. On stage, the play was like a jab to the gut and the emotions it unleashed in its final 15 minutes engulfed audiences, often too stunned to move.
The television version (to be broadcast tonight at 8 on Showtime/The Movie Channel) does not carry that wallop. Although Fugard has made only minor alterations in the dialogue, it seems a far more intimate, reflective piece on the small screen. But what " 'Master Harold' " has lost in fury, it may have gained in poignancy. Home viewers will not reel from the drama, but their hearts will ache nonetheless.
The time is 1950 and Hally (Matthew Broderick), on his way back from school, has dropped by his mother's tearoom to have a bite of lunch and to shoot the breeze with Willie (John Kani) and Sam (Zakes Mokae), the two black servants who staff the humble establishment. In the apartheid society of South Africa, such fraternization is frowned upon. But Hally's case is exceptional. Frightened of his father, an alcoholic cripple forever on a binge, he has always turned to the servants for the understanding and love lacking in his life. They are his real family.
The afternoon in the tea shop does, indeed, start out on an easygoing note, with this odd threesome exchanging jokes, examining bits of Hally's dubious scholarship and dipping into memories. One of the nicest recollections has to do with the long-ago day Sam took Hally out into the park and taught him to fly a kite, made out of tomato-box wood and brown wrapping paper. What Sam really gave Hally that day, however, was self-respect and hope.
But the bond starts to come unraveled with the first ring of the telephone on the tearoom counter. It is Hally's mother calling from the hospital where his father has been making life miserable for the doctors. Now his father is determined to come home. All the latent fear and anguish in Hally's soul begins to stir and in his helplessness, he makes Sam his scapegoat. The black men must henceforth address him as "Master Harold," he announces snippily, before allowing himself to indulge in ugly racial slurs that clearly go against every impulse in his heart. What follows is the nasty breakup of a brotherhood that had made one small patch of the planet a momentarily better place.
On stage, a certain level of hysteria prevailed, as Hally edged ever closer to the point of no return. The television version, which is able to concentrate on the majestic faces of Mokae and Kani, is almost elegiac by comparison. But watching these expansive South African actors grow still, their generous smiles waver and fade, their brows knit with confusion and then quiet despair, is to be privy, on painfully personal terms, to the corrosiveness of racism.
The casting of Broderick as Hally, I think, is also responsible for taking some of the sting out of the drama. The appealing hero of Neil Simon's stage hit "Brighton Beach Memoirs" and the film "WarGames," Broderick is the essence of kid brother -- too shy to be as cocky as he'd like the world to see him, and too decent to relish the hurt he does to others. Broderick plays very much against the grain of Hally. Innocence clings to him. Even as he spits out insults, he seems to be regretting them. A hangdog look on his face, he cannot even bring himself to face the object of his inadvertent scorn.
Pulling away, as Broderick does, from the confrontation, he lowers the dramatic temperature of the piece. At the same time, his understated performance accentuates how little it takes to destroy bonds of trust, forged over a lifetime. A rash moment is all, and a world comes apart.
Fugard offers a lovely metaphor for the way things could be. It is the annual ballroom competition, coming up in two weeks. Willie plans to enter and between chores, Sam has been coaching him in the intricacies of the two-step. Being out there on the dance floor, Sam explains, is "like being in a world where accidents don't happen." No one bumps up against anyone else; all is grace and harmony.
At the end, left in the deserted tearoom, with only the prospect of the forthcoming competition to console them for the afternoon's viciousness, the servants resume their dance lessons. Willie slips a coin in the jukebox, then takes Sam for his partner. Slowly, to the strains of Sarah Vaughan singing "Little Man You've Had a Busy Day," they glide their way around the tables. It could be a ludicrous spectacle -- two lumpen men in workboots, their faces drained of expression, spinning through space like wobbly tops.
But the final shot of them, through the rain-streaked window, is beautiful, the perfect coda to a play as significant as any written the last 10 years.