THE ISLAND -- (Through Feb. 10 at American Showcase Theatre)
Put two actors on an all-but-bare stage in a tiny, exposed theatrical space, and it doesn't take long to see whether they're artistically in tune. Mphela Makgoba and Doug Brown begin this Athol Fugard play grunting, gasping and dragging imaginary wheelbarrows across on invisible beach. In those first wordless moments, an intense relationship is forged, a powerful mood has been created. They have sucked us into the bleak, unjust world of Robben's Island, the South African maximum security prison to which scores of anti-apartheid activists have been exiled. Wise John (Makgoba) and his younger, raging associate Winston (Brown) spend their time bickering, joking, salving each other's spirits and rehearsing for the prison production of "Antigone." Brown does a masterful job of communicating his character's anger, humiliation and, eventually, empowerment. With his bottomless bass voice and rubbery, ever-changing countenance, Makgoba is the showier presence. He's also done a first-rate job as director of the production.
LOST IN YONKERS -- (Through Feb. 10 at the National Theatre)
Neil Simon has been writing plays for 30 years and he still can't handle the basic elements of dramaturgy. His latest begins with a scene between Jay and Arty Kurnitz, two teenage brothers sitting in their grandmother's hot living room in 1952 Yonkers talking and talking and talking. Simon goes on in infinite detail about why the boys are sitting there, their family history (dead mother) and the personalities of three characters yet to arrive onstage: Grandma Kurnitz, Aunt Bella and Uncle Louie. Simon also has trouble with that other generally essential dramatic element, story. "Lost in Yonkers" doesn't have one but it does have a set-up: In debt to a loan shark, Eddie, the boys' father, leaves New York to earn money, depositing his sons with their fierce grandmother. After this, nothing happens. Simon's serious dramas have always been denatured by his unwillingness to pose any problem that can't be fixed with a gag. This is a play with intimations of child abuse throughout, yet in the end, no real harm has been done; everything is as fine as if the Kurnitzes were a TV family from the '50s.