Fugard Agonistes: Have You Seen Us? At Long Wharf Theatre

 

David Begelman

The central character of Athol Fugard’s Have You Seen Us? opens the drama by addressing the audience as if he had something weighty to say. His mood is somber as he ponders the circumstances that change lives. Evidently a sad sack, he has much on his mind to philosophize about. His attire, a rumpled coat and hat much the worse for wear, suggests a downtrodden life situation as he wanders into a sandwich shop in a nameless strip mall in Southern California.

Sam Waterston as Henry Parsons capably radiates misfortune and regret. However, his monologue is too circuitous in meaning to clue us in to the specific source of his woes.

Henry is not alone. Playwright Athol Fugard’s newest drama also seems to meander around several issues, as if it were fetching about for a theme as compelling to treat as apartheid. The latter was explored to great advantage in such masterful works as Master Harold and the Boys, Sizwe Bansi is Dead, Boesman and Lena, and The Road to Mecca.Since South Africa officially abandoned its racial policies in 1994, Fugard has been concentrating recently on other issues of moment. In his play Coming Home, a drama that also had its American premiere at Long Wharf Theatre in 2009,the playwright’s theme was the plight of African families stricken with AIDS.

Have You Seen Us?, unlike those other works, is a creaking attempt to come to grips with issues commanding similar attention. Unfortunately, the result falls short of expectation. The drama begins as a mood piece, launches into a repartee that is vitriolic and sometimes inconsequential, and winds up as a polemic with decidedly sanctimonious overtones. And Henry’s personal transformations (there is more than one of them in the drama) jump from mean spiritedness to contrition in ways that seem to come from nowhere.    
It turns out that Henry has returned to the shop to engage the Mexican woman who runs it. She left a strong impression on him two years earlier during the same yuletide season. (A reminder of same piped in over the sound system is Dean Martin’s rendition of “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.”)

Although a Ph.D. and expert in English medieval literature, Henry’s new encounter with Adela (played with focused forbearance by Liza Colón-Zayas) is charged with nastiness and ethnic insults. No wonder. Henry is not only down on his luck as an expatriated South African, he’s a hopeless alcoholic who is now without family and profession, a former habitué of rehab centers and dingy accommodations in New York City. A tell tale sign of his older pattern are his hand tremors. Henry’s gratuitous ire seems fueled by his own life disappointments, not anything Adela says or does.

Adela is quite capable of standing up to his barbs, including one that insinuates her deportation. She is also prepared to educate him. Henry carries around cards about missing persons (hence the title of the play), dismissively using them as bookmarks. Adela has to point out to the “white gringo” that the missing mother Adrianna and daughter Isabella Henry surmises were victims of violence or abduction, actually fled together to Mexico after American justice awarded the girl to her abusive father.

What finally breaks the chain of enmity between Henry and Adela? Music, although the songs the two sing are a cut apart from the Dean Martin ditty. Henry starts with a rousing Afrikaner number, the fighting song of the Stellenbosch Rugby Club, extolling—of all things—baboons. Adela responds with a song about Las Soldaderas, women fighters who assisted Mexican revolutionaries like Emiliano Zapata. Henry, drawn to the beauty of Adela’s singing, softens his attitude towards her on the spot. (His fancied knowledge of the classical repertoire is not seamless. He calls his favorite divas Janet Baker and Christa Ludwig “contraltos,” when they are actually mezzo-sopranos.)

Henry has a similar meltdown over a song by an elderly Jewish man who wanders into Adela’s shop with his mute wife (played effectively by Elaine Kussack) looking for chicken soup. When aging Solly (played beautifully by Sol Frieder) sings a Yiddish song, Henry, smitten with keen appreciation, drops to his knees to beg the old man for forgiveness for his ingrained anti-Semitism. The moment is poignant, although painfully so, verging as it does on kitsch.
Henry is evidently chastened by his musical interludes with his Mexican waitress and the elderly Jewish couple. But why such happenstances have the capacity to change him remains a mystery. Is Henry at bottom a sensitive, tolerant guy underneath the alcoholic haze? Or is he essentially an intolerant South African momentarily caught off guard by music? Fugard does not really supply an answer, nor an explanation about why awareness of one’s darker side makes it easier or harder to erase.  

At the end of the show Henry’s delivers a final monologue. It is addressed once more to the audience a number of whom were left sniffling in their seats, as he bids them all a happy holiday. If it were all that easy, we would all be singing (or at least humming) most of the time.
All performances in playwright Fugard’s flawed vehicle were accomplished, while Gordon Edelstein’s direction was, as usual, a thing of beauty. It’s the script that doesn’t rise to an expected occasion.

Have You Seen Us? had its world premiere at Long Wharf Theatre Main Stage at 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven, on November 24 and closes on December 20, 2009. Curtain times are Tuesdays at 7 PM, Wednesdays at 2 and 7 PM, Thursdays and Fridays at 8 PM, Saturdays at 3 PM and 8 PM and Sundays at 2 PM and & PM. Tickets are $30-$70 with special discounts available. They may be purchased by calling 203.787.4282 or online at www.longwharf.org.

 

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