PLAYLAND. Drama written and directed by Athol Fugard. At the Manhattan Theatre Club through July 11.
ATHOL FUGARD'S new work, now running Off Broadway, opens with the image of a large black man working on a decrepit-looking bumper car. The setting is a small traveling amusement park that has set down on the outskirts of a South African town. The park is called "Playland," but it might as well be named "Metaphor."
Perhaps the estimable South African dramatist should refrain from directing his own work. Or maybe he should try to stretch his formidable talent by tackling a subject outside of his usual concerns.
This extended one act has a lifeless, didactic quality that reminds us too often that we are in the theater to receive a message. Although small in scale, like most of his other works, it doesn't resonate with the specificity of incident that make other plays of his like "Master Harold ... and the Boys" so compelling.
"Playland" depicts a late New Year's Eve encounter between two men: Martinus Zoeloe (pronounced "zulu"), who works as a maintenance man for the amusement park, and Gideon Le Roux, a slightly drunk white man who wanders in trying to be friendly but whose hostility soon rises to the surface. During the course of their drawn-out conversation, we learn that both men suffer from guilt because of slayings they have committed.
Martinus killed the white man who raped his fiancee, and Gideon, a former Army officer, is responsible for the deaths of dozens of blacks in a massacre.
As the two circle warily around each other, coming nearly to blows but eventually to a form of mutual understanding, we are too greatly aware that they have been created to express the points that the playwright wants to make.
To its credit, the production has the services of two compelling actors: Frankie R. Faison as Martinus and Kevin Spacey as Gideon.
Faison, a lumbering bear of a man, is slow-moving and deliberate, but we can see the tortured agonies that can lead his character to violence. When Martinus is provoked nearly to blows by Gideon and must struggle to contain himself, we are vividly aware of the effort. Spacey, who has grown from one of our most exciting young actors into simply one of our most exciting actors, uses his volatile presence to make Gideon seem truly threatening from his first moment on the stage. But he also lets us see the p ain underneath.
Playwright Fugard has created two compelling characters in these men from the opposite social strata of South Africa struggling to find some sort of redemption. But in terms of knowing what to do with them, he seems as lost as they are.