"Master Harold . . . and the Boys"

The Studio Theatre

Through Feb. 13

Tickets: 202/332-3300

Athol Fugard's autobiographical play "Master Harold ... And the Boys" tests the unlikely bond between Hally (Steven Eskay), a white South African teenager, and Sam (James Brown-Orleans), the black servant who mostly raised him. Like most father-son relationships, this one is a mixture of love and rebellion. Unlike most actor relationships, there's a lot of truth behind it.

When Eskay, now 22, was in high school, he acted in a play with some drama students from the University of Maryland at Baltimore County. One of those older students was Brown-Orleans, who became his idol.

"He was such an inspiration," Eskay recalls. "I used to try to mimic his acting style, his fundamental intensity."

For Brown-Orleans, however, the experience "was something I kinda blew off." He quickly forgot about the fledgling actor until recent months, when Brown-Orleans and Eskay found out they'd been cast together once again.

"All the father-son interactions -- there's something very real onstage about that," Eskay says. "He's taught me and has always been in the back of my mind."

"It's so important for me to fall in love with Master Harold as my own son," says Brown-Orleans, 32. "He had to be someone who'd be easy to love and cherish. So when I met Steve I knew it would work out."

The play charts a rainy afternoon when the tea room owned by Hally's mother -- and where Sam and fellow servant Willie (Michael Anthony Williams) work -- becomes a tinderbox of emotion. What starts out as an essay on the beauty of ballroom dancing descends into a display of unbearable human ugliness. But the actors say their onstage sparring has only bolstered their offstage friendship.

"The more we do this play, my love for him grows and grows," Brown-Orleans says. Adds Eskay, "In some weird way, it brings us closer together."