“HAVE YOU SEEN US?” A PUZZLING EPIPHANY
AT LONG WHARF THEATRE
By Marlene S. Gaylinn
There is an Aesop fable about a group of smart animals that wanted to form the most wonderful-sounding orchestra in the world, but one basic element was missing, and they didn’t realize what it was. Each musician, a virtuoso on his particular instrument, was certain that it had something to do with whom they sat next to. However, no matter how the director re-arranged the seating the music sounded terrible. In the end, the musicians discovered that they were not given the proper sheet music to begin with. Therefore they could not harmonize.
In a play, sometimes the best of intentions can go astray – despite the fact that everything else that supports the production is excellent, including audience attendance. Long Wharf’s latest “world premiere” “Have You Seen Us” is written by a highly recognized writer, Athol Fugard. It features a well-known actor, Sam Waterston and supported by a great cast that is successfully directed by Gordon Edelstein -- yet, one basic element is flawed. In this case it’s the writing.
Fugard, whose highly successful message plays are about life and apartheid in his native South Africa, is now living in California -- a place where there are a lot of displaced persons trying to get along while achieving their dreams. In “Have You Seen Us” (referring to “Have You Seen Me” lost poster children) the author is apparently reflecting on his own upbringing and various prejudices that are inherent in both countries. Bringing the deep roots of prejudice and possibly the author’s own former feelings to the forefront are good intentions. However, how the subject matter is handled through protagonist, Henry Parson (Sam Waterston) is unbelievable and fails to touch the emotions. This has nothing to do with his acting.
The one-act play begins with an overly long monologue in which Henry, an immigrant from South Africa, introduces himself, the three other characters and an experience that he had several years ago. He is standing in front of the strip diner where he usually has a turkey sandwich at lunchtime. We learn that he regularly shares ridicules with his Hispanic waitress (wonderfully played by Liza Colon-Zayas) and she often gets the best of him. He also describes an elderly couple (Elaine Kussack and Sol Frieder) that he met here. He once wished them “…a Merry Christmas” and was highly irritated because he did not get the expected response from them. The old man stopped, turned around and calmly replied, “…thank you, but we’re Jewish” and they went on their way. This is an unbelievable encounter because it’s unlikely that the Jewish couple would have responded “…we’re Jewish” to a stranger -- especially regarding Christmas, for fear it would cause an unwanted encounter. If they did respond, it would be “the same to you.”
We finally get into the diner and the play begins. During the ensuing dialog, which is highly entertaining and very well developed, we get to know about Parsons’ and his waitress Adela’s backgrounds. Just when we believe the two of them are reaching common ground (through the exchanging of stories and songs of their native lands) and begin to expect that Parson’s issues with the waitress are finally going to be resolved, in comes the Jewish couple, this unlikely place, looking for food and some chicken soup. When they are served, the old man happens to sing a Yiddish song (about handing down the Torah) that he regularly sang to his young son who is now deceased.
During this comparatively short episode, Parsons’ has another epiphany during this song. Like the songs exchange with his waitress, this one also reminds him of his lost family relationships. Suddenly mending his prejudicial ways, Parsons drops to his knees, places his head on the old man’s lap and begs for forgiveness as he would from his own father. Shocked, the old man asks “for what?” The audience responds with uncomfortable laughter because the play implies an irony. How can one personally forgive someone for something that has supposedly taken place eons ago? Perhaps this scene was Fugard’s intention. However, the serious fact that this sort of prejudice has gone unchecked for centuries is lost in that moment. Therefore, it’s hard to be touched by the protagonist’s sudden remorse and confession to the old man who symbolizes “the Jews.” It’s great to make statements about the derisiveness of prejudice, but one also has to understand the culture one is dealing with.
The acting is great. Parts of the play are interesting and entertaining but much of it needs to be re-worked in order to create a more meaningful impact. An exhibit about American immigrants is featured on the theatre’s second level lobby. It provides additional insight to the history of prejudice in the United States.
“Have you See Us?” runs to Dec. 20. Tickets: 203-787-4282 or www.longwharf.org
Marlene S. Gaylinn is a member of CT Critics Circle
This article appears in "On Connecticut Theatre."