"Have You Seen Us?"
Long Wharf Theatre, New Haven
With its impressive credentials of top-notch playwright, actor, and director, “Have You Seen Us?” offered us high expectations. This “world premiere” of Athol Fugard’s new play, now at Long Wharf, stars Sam Waterston and is directed by Artistic Director Gordon Edelstsein. Waterston and Edelstein bring their own impeccable skills to the show. And Fugard is a playwright of world renown, deservedly so, with a long list of searching, brilliant dramas to his credit. Living under South Africa’s apartheid government, he produced such masterpieces as “Master Harold and the Boys,” Sizwe Bansi is Dead,” “My Children! My Africa!”
But, alas, “Have You Seen Us?” is a decided letdown. It does have a message buried beneath its verbiage, but that message never reaches out across the footlights. For openers, Waterston comes on stage to deliver a long, flat monologue, which produces a somnambulant effect. Why not skip the monologue and get right into the story? Not that there’s much of a story. The play deals with four refugees cast upon the shores of southern California, outcasts longing for their homelands. Henry Parsons (the Waterston character) is a one-time professor, now a hopeless drunk. Adela (Liza Colon-Zayas) is a Mexican who runs a small coffee shop which Parsons regularly visits. Throughout the play they exchange hostile barbs (which should inject life into the piece, but does not). Completing the dramatis personae are two other customers, elderly little Jews who may be Holocaust survivors (Sol Frieder and Elaine Kussack as Solly and Rachel).
The Waterston character (possibly a spokesman for Fugard himself) expresses the sense of loss and alienation he feels far from home. And he carries the baggage of prejudice he has brought with him from South Africa.
He hates Jews. He hates Latinos. But Parsons suddenly has an epiphany. His prejudices drop away when he hears Adela sing a Spanish tune and Solly sing quietly in Yiddish. Thus, Fugard’s highly unlikely denouement, which happens quickly and with no preparation.
To be fair, all four players deliver fine performances. Frieder and Kussack giving touching portrayals of two sad little creatures, victims of history. Colon-Zayas plays the feisty Adela with elegance and a gritty reality. Waterston creates a memorable lead character, down to his believable South African accent. He comes across strongly as the hopeless drunk who has lost everything—wife, children, work, country.
But the actors give better performances than the material warrants. All told, this play of good intentions never delivers the goods. The incomparable Fugard worked best in his own homeland during its time of crisis. His powerful voice no longer has the target of apartheid against which to rail.
-- Irene Backalenick
Dec. 4, 2009