Exits and Entrances (at Interplayers through Nov. 1) improves during a second-act debate about political versus escapist theater, and, in a couple of sequences, it nicely advocates the value of humility. But for the most part -- and despite the understated sincerity of Damon Abdallah as the youthful idealist -- it's a long-winded, uninspiring evening (even at just 100 minutes, and even with an intermission added).
Fugard (who's 76 now) has written a memory play about his 20s. Calling himself, simply, the Playwright, he inserts himself (as a dresser and fellow actor) into the stage-life of Andre Huguenet, the preeminent South African actor of his era. The two men talk and reminisce and talk. After an effective scene-setting monologue by Abdallah delivered in a good-enough-for-my-ears South African accent, we're thrust backstage at an amateur-except-for-Huguenet production of Oedipus Rex, with the veteran running his lines, dabbing on makeup and then venturing out under the lights for his self-blinding catastrophe.
Unfortunately, for the Oedipus sequence, costume designer Janna Cresswell has put Villers in a ridiculous purple and gold toga that's supposed to evoke the grandeur of ancient Greece but instead looks like John Belushi in Animal House crossed with Liberace. It's a fatal blow. Villers delivers Sophocles' lines about the inescapability of fate without too much sawing of the air, but he can hardly be expected to achieve tragic eminence when he's draped in a gaudy eyesore of a bathrobe.
Villers has a big physical presence onstage without the over-size personality that Huguenet demands. Of course, it doesn't help that Fugard saddles the role with telling not showing: When Huguenet recalls how moved he was by a ballerina's dancing, we're listening to an account of a performance we never saw, putting us at two removes from beauty.
But Exits isn't entirely a failure. The play's best exchange arrives after intermission in a debate over the value of political theater. The argument grows heated, with Abdallah pacing about on behalf of brotherhood and Villers practically laughing in his face, stating with assurance that all that white audiences want are nice escapist comedies. Abdallah squats before his mentor, Villers leans over in his chair, and the two men grasp hands, almost sharing a moment of almost-insight -- but then, like so much else in Exits, the moment's allowed to dissipate, unexplained and unexamined.
In Villers' defense, Fugard fires up the pressure cooker: We're told again and again that the speech we're about to hear Huguenet deliver was his "most remarkable ever," or something that sent chills up onlookers' spines, or for once involved an actor who wasn't merely watching himself act but was utterly and completely consumed in the emotional complexities of his role.
You try delivering a speech after an introduction like that.
On the featured soliloquies, Villers goes 1 for 3. The toga defeats his Oedipus, and a lack of suicidal depression undermines his Hamlet: "To be or not to be" was recited, not felt. A second-act-opening speech, however, had Villers on hands and knees, scrubbing the floor and trying to retain his sanity. We learn that the character he's playing is a Catholic cardinal imprisoned by a totalitarian state. Even here, Villers sometimes over-relies on stentorian effects, but he and director Kalensky got Huguenet down on the floor, moving and pleading.
Kalensky deserves credit for bringing Interplayers a work of ideas and emotions by one of the world's most respected dramatists. But Exits and Entrances doesn't connect the actors' humility with universal appeal, and it isn't written or acted convincingly enough here to have the inside-baseball appeal for drama fans that a life-in-the-theater play should have.