Blood Knot

Pianosa Group, Walnut Street Theater Studio 3, Eighth & Walnut Streets, through Sept. 22, 893-1145.

Blood Knot -- the play that first earned Athol Fugard international attention -- has all the minor faults that we have come to associate with the South African playwright's later work. It's too long; it gets a bit preachy and metaphorical (though in this instance only at the very end); and its action is fueled by the slenderest of plots hinging on the flimsiest of twists (that the protagonists, using the personal ads to find a pen pal, would mistakenly have bought a whites-only newspaper).

But Blood Knot is based on a situational premise of such crystalline simplicity and clarity that these faults hardly matter at all.

Zachariah (Frank X) is a black laborer living in a cardboard and corrugated steel shack in a township outside of Port Elizabeth. Morris, recognizably white and played by a recognizably white actor (Benjamin White), has been sleeping on Zachariah's floor for the past year and keeps house for him (such as it is). At the end of the very first scene we learn that Zachariah and Morris are brothers.

This wonderfully potent premise allows Fugard to explore the doubleness of racial identity, the politics of passing, and the symbiosis of brotherhood (when Morris puts on Zachariah's overcoat he claims that "he can wrap up in the smell of him").

But because Morris is afraid to leave the shack (we later learn that his retreat from the world is related to his having spent several years passing for white), and because he is able to persuade the semi-literate Zachariah to sublimate his sexual urges into the platonic arena of letter-writing, the action of Blood Knot, such as it is, ascends to a different plane altogether -- the plane of the imagination.

In their little room, in intervals marked by a wind-up alarm clock (a device that Fugard shamelessly borrows from Jean Genet's The Maids), Morris and Zachariah act out scenes from their imagination: the imaginary car rides they would take as children, or the imagined meeting with Zachariah's white pen pal.

Zach and Morris escape into their game-playing and live in their dreams. But, they ruefully admit, white South Africans "don't like our playing games with their whiteness"; and, they observe, if they ever want to arrest you, "all they need for evidence is a man's dream's." And so their game-playing leads to the most harrowing game of all, an imaginary encounter in a park between a white gentleman and a menacing black gatekeeper, which allows them to embody all of the symbolically fratricidal tensions of apartheid-era South Africa.

Anyone who saw Fugard and Zakes Mokae perform the roles know that White and X have a hard act to follow. But they do manage to carve out credible identities for themselves. White (who, after playing an Armenian and an Irishman in little over a year, is becoming the Meryl Streep of Philadelphia actors) has a seedy cockiness hiding a profound fear. And X, with a mischievous smile and a twinkle that barely conceals a very real danger, makes Zachariah seem more slyly intelligent than Mokae did (or at least that I was able to sense beneath the mask of Mokae's cultural difference).

And so, under the direction of Joseph Pokorny, the play works in all its glories. And their new theater company, the Pianosa Group, has made an auspicious debut on the Philadelphia scene.

All they need now is to figure out a more credible way to make that alarm clock go off.

-- Cary M. Mazer